Fayetteville council leaves mask mandate decision up to Board of Health

Fayetteville Mayor Lioneld Jordan / Fayetteville Government Channel

Fayetteville’s health board will make the call on when to lift the city’s mask mandate.

City Council members on Tuesday voted 6-1 to remove a sunset clause from the mask order, which was set to expire next week.

The mandate was reinstated on Aug. 6, just hours after an Arkansas judge temporarily blocked the state from enforcing its ban on mask rules. Tuesday’s decision follows the Arkansas Supreme Court’s denial of a request from the state to stay the judge’s decision.

Fayetteville’s updated mandate is similar to its original ordinance in that face masks are required in indoor public places and in public areas at city-owned buildings, but it does not require business owners to enforce the law for their customers.

Tuesday’s amendment removes the link to the governor’s expired emergency declaration and instead relies on guidance from the Board of Health to decide when COVID-19 hospitalizations in Fayetteville are low enough that the city’s mask mandate can safely be loosened. It was previously set to expire 14 days after the state’s declaration ended. The mandate would also be removed if a final court decision in November leaves it unenforceable.

The amendment was walked on by Council Member Matthew Petty, who said he’s hopeful the mandate can soon be lifted.

“It looks like we’re finally about to win a round here,” said Petty, in reference to the recent decline in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, which have now reached the lowest level since mid-July.

Council members Holly Hertzberg, Teresa Turk and Mark Kinion each said they were a little uncomfortable making changes to the mandate without more public comment. When the idea of waiting a few days and holding a special council meeting on Friday evening was brought up, Mayor Lioneld Jordan and Sarah Bunch said they had plans to be out of town this weekend and wouldn’t be able to make it. Bunch said she knew of at least one other council member who would also be unavailable.

Council Member D’Andre Jones said he understands wanting to get more input from residents, but for the sake of public safety – considering there’s a chance of not having a quorum at a special meeting – he felt comfortable making an immediate decision.

Petty agreed, and said at this point in the pandemic, he can’t imagine hearing a new argument that would compel him to change his mind about the effectiveness of masks.

Turk said under most circumstances she would prefer to get as much public comment as possible, but since there are logistical issues that might hinder a vote at a special meeting, she’d rather err on the side of caution and make a decision before it’s too late.

A motion from Council Member Holly Hertzberg to table the issue and call a special meeting Monday (Oct. 11) died for lack of a second. Kinion later said he’d support a Friday (Oct. 8) meeting after Jordan offered to change his weekend plans, but the motion failed 5-2, with Hertzberg casting the only other vote in favor of that idea.

In the final vote, Hertzberg was the only member in opposition. Kinion said while he still believes there should’ve been more public comment, he didn’t want to miss the only remaining opportunity to keep the mandate in place.