Fayetteville council votes to keep mask mandate until December

Dr. Marti Sharkey, the city’s public health officer, speaks during Tuesday’s City Council meeting. / Fayetteville Government Channel

Fayetteville’s city-wide mask mandate will end next month.

City Council members on Tuesday voted 7-0 to end the mandate on Dec. 23. That’s the same day masks will become optional for students in grades K-6 in the Fayetteville School District. Grades 7-12 became mask-optional on Nov. 15.

Fayetteville’s mandate was lifted in June after COVID cases declined but was reinstated in August after the Delta variant’s rapid spread led to a new spike in cases and an overload of the area’s hospitals.

Council members Sloan Scroggin and Holly Hertzberg brought forth the proposal on Tuesday because of reduced infections and hospitalizations, and the recent increase in the availability of vaccines.

The city’s Board of Health last week supported a repeal, but recommended only removing the mandate if virus hospitalizations stay near or below 30 across the region, and overall ICU bed usage stays below 100. Data released Tuesday by the Northwest Arkansas Council shows there are 36 COVID hospitalizations and 96 ICU beds in use across Washington and Benton counties.

Marti Sharkey, the city’s public health officer, last week said cases in Washington County had been trending downward, but have recently started to plateau. Sharkey said as of Nov. 2, 58% of people in Washington County who were eligible for shots were fully vaccinated, and 68% had received at least one shot.

During the council meeting on Tuesday, Hertzberg said she doesn’t think the discussion is about the efficacy of mask usage, but rather about whether the city should have an ordinance in place that isn’t being enforced. She said having the mandate ordinance in place without much cooperation from the public and without enforcement makes the city look foolish, and that mask policies are better left to individual businesses.

Council Member Scroggin said while he initially felt like the ordinance had some good effects, it’s obvious lately that people aren’t really wearing masks anymore, and having a policy on the books that isn’t obeyed or enforced isn’t a good look.

Council Member Mark Kinion hesitantly agreed, and said it’s clear that people who want to wear masks are wearing them, and those who don’t want to wear them simply aren’t doing so.

Kinion said it bothers him personally, because he is a strong advocate for mask usage, but he’s been struggling lately to determine when the decision to wear a mask should be left up to the public.

“I think at this point, there’s enough evidence out there for people to be able to make a choice,” he said. “It’s regrettable, and this is not easy for me to say…but at this point we shouldn’t be mandating something that isn’t happening anyway.”

Council Member Sonia Harvey suggested an amendment to include the Board of Health’s hospitalization recommendations as a contingency for the repeal.

Hertzberg said that idea seems too complicated for people to understand, and that the council should just pick a date with no other caveats.

The council eventually agreed and settled on the Dec. 23 date with no contingencies.

Council Member Teresa Turk said she’s personally disappointed that so many people won’t take the proper precautions to stop the spread of the virus, but she will support ending the mandate to match the school district’s plan. She said if the hospital numbers spike back up, she would like to have some way to reconsider that date.

City Attorney Kit Williams said if the council votes to end the mandate on Dec. 23, but notices a dramatic increase in hospitalizations in mid-December, any council member could bring forward a proposal to extend the mandate. Turk said that’s something the public can expect to happen if the numbers do ramp back up.

During public comment, three people spoke in favor of the repeal and one person spoke against.

In the final vote, the council unanimously passed the repeal.