Temporary mask mandate proposed in Fayetteville during Omicron spike

Flyer staff photo

UPDATE: This ordinance was approved at the Jan. 18 City Council meeting.

FAYETTEVILLE — The City Council next week will consider a proposal for a short-term mask mandate to coincide with a spike in new COVID-19 cases.

The city’s most recent mandate expired Dec. 23, but with the Omicron variant’s surge leading to record highs for new cases, Council Member Teresa Turk has called for a new ordinance that would temporarily require masks indoors in public places and city-owned buildings.

Arkansas set records for four consecutive days last week, with daily counts of new cases reaching 8,434 on Friday (Jan. 7).

The variant’s history in other countries indicates that while it has greater infectious ability, local cases could see a rapid decline after the initial surge, according to a draft of the ordinance (PDF). Because of that possibility, the proposed mandate would automatically terminate on March 2, unless the council extends it before then.

Similar to the previous mandate, masks could be removed while eating or drinking.

Settings with 10 or fewer people, such as small business offices which do not serve the public in person, and areas without normal public access like semi-private offices and workshops, would be exempt from the mandate unless social distancing isn’t possible.

The virus surge recently led to an automatic reinstatement of a mask mandate at Fayetteville Public Schools after the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement (ACHI) reported that active cases of COVID-19 per 10,000 people in the district was 71, which is more than double the threshold of 30 that would have kept the school’s mask-optional policy in place.

Turk presented the ordinance as a walk-on for the Jan. 18 meeting at the council’s agenda-setting session on Tuesday.

During the session, Mayor Lioneld Jordan asked how the proposed ordinance would be enforced, and whether businesses would be required to adhere to the temporary mandate.

City Attorney Kit Williams said the proposed ordinance does not have an enforcement section in it, but rather serves as a message that the council supports mask wearing.

Williams said that doesn’t mean businesses can’t still set their own policies and enforce mask wearing for their customers. Similarly, he said, the mayor can always decide whether employees and other people must wear a mask while in city buildings. And anyone who doesn’t adhere to the rule can be removed.

“You can do that without an ordinance,” Williams told the mayor.

Turk said she’s hopeful that the Omicron wave will be less severe and will quickly taper off, but she still wants to take precautions.

“I just think it’s very important as leaders that we come out with a clear message to our citizens that we want them to wear masks,” Turk said.