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(Photo by Chandra Jones Graham)

Varied views on mask rules

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“We wear masks for you. Wear them for us.”

The message on the Little Art Theatre marquee asks those downtown to don face masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Other signs around town make similar pleas, from those in store windows to those flashing on electronic sign boards: “Mask on in Yellow Springs.”

Whether visitors and villagers are following those directives — and should be made to — has become a matter of local contention in recent weeks.

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Some residents and business owners worry that large numbers of unmasked visitors may bring, and spread, the virus in the community, which they say is particularly high-risk with its older population. They urge stricter measures, such as a local ordinance requiring masks in shops and public spaces.

Moira Laughlin is one such resident. As a 65-year-old with an autoimmune disorder that makes her at-risk of developing serious complications from COVID-19, she doesn’t feel safe going downtown on busy weekends, where she has observed visitors flouting the messages recommending masks. The signs, she said, can easily be ignored.

“It’s almost pointless to have the signs because there’s no consequence if they come in and don’t wear a mask,” Laughlin said.

But others, including some merchants, say that the Village’s current mask messaging goes too far. They fear that visitors, many of whom have expressed confusion about the Village’s mask stance, would stay away, causing further economic harm to downtown shops. Still others are opposed to requiring masks for ideological reasons or due to health-related exemptions that would prevent some from complying.

“We can encourage them, but we can’t make them do it,” Danyel Mershon, owner of Wildflower Boutique, said of the difficulties in enforcement last week. “People know that they need to be wearing a mask. I don’t think we need to push this even harder and deter people from coming to Yellow Springs.”

On Monday, Yellow Springs Village Council discussed, and ultimately decided not to pass, an ordinance requiring masks in town, opting instead for more visible signage downtown. Also this week, the Yellow Springs Chamber of Commerce softened its message on mask-wearing, with new signs that say “Be Kind,” accompanied by an image of a mask, replacing those with the message, “Mask On YS.” And some business owners who previously required that patrons wear masks in their shops are no longer doing so.

Mask recommendation timeline

On April 3, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially recommended that all people wear cloth face masks or other face coverings when going into public places like grocery stores, parks and pharmacies, to avoid exposure to the coronavirus. The CDC previously did not recommend mask-wearing, but new evidence that those infected with the coronavirus could transmit the virus to others before they realized they were sick convinced the agency to reverse course.

The Ohio Department of Health echoed the CDC’s recommendation of masks, citing similar reasons.

“This recommendation is being made based on studies that show a significant proportion of people with COVID-19 lack symptoms and can transmit the virus to others in close proximity, through speaking, coughing, sneezing or other means,” the department noted in its guidance.

Wearing a mask, however, doesn’t offer a significant amount of protection to that person, public health authorities have explained. Instead, it protects others from any virus-containing droplets that the mask-wearer might expel. Those wearing masks were further directed to avoid touching the mask, wash it after use and still maintain a six-foot social distance from others.

Over the next month, a handful of states went further than recommendations, requiring face masks be worn in public or inside stores. However, Ohio was not one of them. After Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine initially made masks mandatory in stores for both customers and employees on April 28, he reversed course on the customer requirement the next day, saying that the measure “went too far.”

Across the country, other jurisdictions, such as counties and municipalities, have since passed stricter requirements for mask-wearing. But neither Greene County nor the Village have decided to do so. Officially, Greene County Public Health recommends face coverings “where social distancing measures are hard to maintain.” According to Jeff Webb, the department’s environmental health director, the county is currently following the state’s rules on the matter. He sees wearing masks as “one of a number” of interventions to slow the spread of the virus, in addition to social distancing and frequent hand washing.

In the absence of a federal, state, county or local mandate, individual business owners can decide whether to require customers to wear masks in their stores. Initially, the majority of local businesses stated their desire to do so, including some shops that had yet to open. The Chamber of Commerce developed a campaign with the message “Mask On YS” and printed and posted signs around town. However, over the last week some businesses began to change their position, and the Chamber followed suit.

“We think it is good that [the shops] are able to take the approach that they want,” Chamber Director Karen Wintrow said this week.

Wintrow added that the prior message, “Mask On YS,” may have confused some patrons by implying there was a requirement to wear a mask. Instead, the new message, “Stay Safe. Be Kind,” focuses on the benefit of wearing a mask for others.

“Wearing a mask is not about your politics and it’s not about being scared,” Wintrow said. “It’s just about being a nice person.”

Meanwhile, the Village used its electronic sign boards to promote the message, “Mask on in Yellow Springs,” but did not seriously consider a mask requirement until this week. Previously, Village leaders stated they were unsure about their powers to enact such an ordinance. They’ve also noted the difficulties of enforcing it. Village Mayor Pam Conine said as much on a call with local business owners on May 18.

“Once you get in that territory of masks being required, it becomes a law enforcement nightmare,” Conine said.

Downtown shops’ approaches differ

Business owners have shared different perspectives on the issue of masks over the last week.

In conversations with her customers, Mershon, of Wildflower Boutique, learned that many were confused about the requirement of masks in the village because of the current signage.

“I think it sends out a very strong message that you must wear a mask, and that isn’t the message at all businesses,” Mershon said.

Initially, Mershon required masks in her shop, but once she spoke with customers she came to sympathize with their viewpoint on the issue. Many shared concerns over civil liberties.

“No one wants to be told what to do and how to do it,” Mershon said.

Mershon worries that potential customers will be deterred from visiting town, and her shop, if the mask messaging is too strict. She finds that most patrons are wearing masks anyway, and supports a gradual “easing up of messaging” over the next few weeks.

“I realized, long term, by holding onto the mask requirement, it would hurt my business,” Mershon said. “They should still have the right to patronize my store when I desperately need it.”

Flower Blackmon, owner of Heaven on Earth Emporium, has a different view. She was encouraged by the initial solidarity of the local business community to require masks. Recently, that’s changed, which has made it more difficult for her to uphold her mask requirement.

“It was assumed that we were going to be following the Village’s signs,” Blackmon said. “But the problem has been the store owners are letting in people without masks.”

Although the majority of customers enter wearing masks, a few bristle at having to wear a mask at her store when they don’t have to wear them in others, Blackmon noted. But they usually comply, many pulling masks from pockets and putting them on after being asked to.

Above all, Blackmon wants to protect her employees, and her customers, from COVID-19. As such, she said, she’s not afraid to confront a patron about wearing a mask, even if they’re turned off, saying it’s not worth the money they might spend.

“I’m not going to put anyone at risk,” Blackmon said.

Other business owners have been clear about not requiring masks from the get-go, including the proprietors of Starflower Natural Foods and Spirited Goat Coffeehouse, which has yet to reopen.

YS Hardware, which originally required masks, now has a sign on its shop that reads, “masks are appreciated.” In a call with Village leaders and business owners on May 18, Yellow Springs Hardware co-owner Gilah Pomeranz said the vast majority of patrons, around 90–95%, do wear masks in the store, in part because of the Village’s “strident messages” on the electronic sign boards. However, she doesn’t feel comfortable asking those not wearing them to leave.

Karyn Current, co-owner of Current Cuisine, however, is sticking to the store’s mask requirement. She said enforcing the rule is “more policing than we wanted to do,” but is worth it.

“We have the requirement mostly to protect my team,” she said. “If one of us drops out, you feel like you pretty much have to shut down the store. I don’t want to have to do that.”

Residents urge mask requirement

In emails to Village Council over the last week, several residents have asked Council to strengthen their stance on masks, with some going so far as to ask them to pass a law requiring masks in the village.

Laughlin was one of those who urged a village-wide mask requirement. In addition to concerns about her personal health and safety, Laughlin doesn’t feel it’s fair to put the onus on shopkeepers to set the rules, and have to enforce them.

She also doesn’t believe that requiring masks would deter visitors, or shoppers, all that much.

“My personal experience living in the village in the past 35 years is nothing seems to stop people from coming,” she said. “If people really want to go into the stores, and can’t go in without a mask, they’ll buy one.”

In the end, Laughlin wants to be able to shop downtown for necessities, which she doesn’t feel comfortable doing at present because of visitors not abiding by the recommendation to wear masks.

“Most of us have been doing a pretty good job of self-isolating and for people to come from wherever and put that in danger so cavalierly, it’s so disrespectful,” she said.

Kate Hamilton shares Laughlin’s concerns. Although she sees it as a positive step that many local businesses require masks, in other areas of town, such as the bike path and sidewalks, it is impossible to maintain the recommended six feet of social distance. As a result, Hamilton would like Council to pass a mask requirement. Doing so, she said, would help protect those shopping, and working, downtown.

“We’re asking employees to wear masks to protect people coming to the store, but at the same time, we’re not protecting them by requiring customers to wear them,” she said.

Other considerations

As the debate over masks has heated up, some are urging more understanding for different perspectives on the issue.

At a Virtual Town Hall meeting last week, Miami Township Fire Chief Colin Altman said he worried about “mask shaming” of people in town who choose not to wear masks. There are valid reasons why someone might not be wearing a mask, such as health reasons. As a result, villagers should focus on their own actions, not the actions of others, he said.

“Remember, masks are helpful, they are helpful to protect you or others, but if people aren’t wearing a mask it might be because they can’t, it might be because they just don’t want to,” he said. “Just be kind, keep your distance, go about your business.”

Resources from Greene County Public Health specifically state that face coverings should not be used on children under age 2, those with trouble breathing or those who are unable to remove their mask without help.

There are other valid reasons people may decide to not don a mask, or may struggle with doing so. Local trauma therapist Amy Chavez offered the perspective this week that, for those with asthma or another breathing impairment, a history of panic attacks, or for those who have suffered a trauma related to difficulty breathing, wearing a mask may cause psychological and physiological distress.

“Some people may have strong psychological and physiological triggers to having their face covered, their breathing and communication restricted,” Chavez said.

Chavez also suggests suspending judgement of someone’s character based on whether or not they are wearing a mask, and remembering that most people “truly are navigating this collective traumatic experience the best they can.”

“This is hard, and that is real,” she said.

Council perspectives

Village Council President Brian Housh feels that the Village’s stance on masks has been strong from the beginning.

“Wear masks when you’re around other people” has been the Village’s message, Housh said.

After some initial confusion, Housh said he is now clear that the Village is legally able to pass a mask requirement. Housh reached out personally to DeWine, and was told that a municipality can pass more strict rules than the state for the health and safety of the community.

“What [DeWine] said is that he understood that Yellow Springs is in a unique situation being so small and being a destination town with outdoor recreation surrounding us,” Housh said. “He would understand why we would make the decision.”

But Housh is unsure if a mask requirement makes sense here. For one, there is fear the measure may cause backlash and draw protesters to town. Housh worries about the Village’s capacity to enforce the measure with such a small police department. And there could be a legal challenge to the law, from either a business or individual. That’s why Housh is leaning toward better signage rather than an official ordinance.

“I am still personally of the mind that we need to look at the messaging and the signage and the friendly reminders from police officers before we take the step of a resolution or an ordinance,” he said.

Council members largely agreed with Housh at Council’s May 18 virtual meeting. Council Vice President Marianne MacQueen said that signage only on businesses was not effective, as on a recent Saturday “it was rare to see any masks” downtown. Council Member Kevin Stokes suggested that free masks be made available to visitors, saying the Village should “make it almost impossible for them not to comply” with expectations to wear a mask in town. Council members Laura Curliss and Lisa Kreeger were wary of requiring masks because of those who cannot wear them for health reasons.

YS Police Chief Brian Carlson, addressing the issue of enforcement, said that a strict mask requirement contradicts villagers’ desire for “less policing, not more.” Instead, he sees that police would be more effective with a “polite approach.” Noting that his office has received several calls from people upset about visitors not wearing masks, Carlson urges villagers to avoid confrontations and keep themselves safe.

“For anyone out in Yellow Springs, the advice is to ‘mask on’ and set the example,” Carlson said recently. “I also emphasize, if you see folks that aren’t meeting the standards that we are adhering to, the best thing that you can do is to avoid them.”

Housh concluded Council’s discussion of the issue by saying that the Village would explore more signage, including large banners. He noted that Council members felt there were “lots of reservations about taking the step of the legal requirement of masks,” but that they may change their minds.

“Our minds are open,” Housh said. “We need to be mindful if things change.”

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13 Responses to “Varied views on mask rules”

  1. Shawn Swonger says:

    I ride my trike to Yellow Springs did some business with the Village Cyclory and actually felt safer in Yellow Springs than in Speingield where if you want you mask into anywhere in town people look at you funny for wearing a mask. So I as a tourist applaud you all for doing that

  2. Barbara White says:

    The Best Advice for Saving as many people as You Can include:

    washing your hands
    wearing a mask
    maintaining social distance
    and staying home if you are sick.

    The virus hasn’t reached its peek in many Ohio counties including where I live. Please heed the advice of those trained in their fields to give advice such as epidemiologists. It isn’t enough to wear a mask at work and then take risks of not wearing one in precarious situations while not working, especially if you are in any health care industry.

    I am praying for the families of those recently lost to Covid 19 in the village where I live.

    Everyone, please be safe and listen.

    My grandmother used to say “If you don’t listen, you’ll have to feel.”

  3. !! says:

    Well, the decision to mask for safety certainly shouldn’t be delayed by the Ohio Assembly to decide about masks instead of communities. To misguided politicians who believe they’re the physical replicate of God’s face, I say:

    According to (Christian) historical resources: “God is a spirit (John 4:24), and so His appearance is not like anything we can describe. Exodus 33:20 tells us, “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” As sinful human beings, we are incapable of seeing God in all His glory. His appearance is utterly unimaginable and too glorious to be safely perceived by sinful man.”

  4. FoutaDjallon says:

    Well, the decision to mask for safety certainly shouldn’t be delayed by the Ohio Assembly to decide about masks instead of communities. To misguided politicians who believe they’re the physical replicate of God’s face, I say:

    According to historical resources: “God is a spirit (John 4:24), and so His appearance is not like anything we can describe. Exodus 33:20 tells us, “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” As sinful human beings, we are incapable of seeing God in all His glory. His appearance is utterly unimaginable and too glorious to be safely perceived by sinful man.”

  5. Anon says:

    …unique situation being so small and being a destination town with outdoor recreation surrounding us,” Housh said. “He would understand why we would make the decision…”

    No one seems to want responsibility of enforcement. What if protestors did show up? What support is the state willing to extend to help local LEO? Would it not be on the state to assist if some out of hand demonstration occurred over the wearing of masks in places where they should be worn with crowded narrow streets of out of town visitors? Some of these situations should have been mandated on a state level so small towns/villages wouldn’t be faced with the dilemma. I’m disappointed in De Wine’s failure in this regard. He’s a smart man and must have realized the pickle this would cause specifically Yellow Springs and communities like them. If there is a second wave, I hope he’s prepared to spell guidelines out better. This pandemic isn’t over with and I don’t know if anyone can grow some to save more lives or not. But I watch the news–I aint a big believer in people’s innate ability to simply “be nice” I mean geesh! Some people don’t know how or simply won’t ever be nice. Was the wicked witch ever nice just because she was surrounded by the wonder of Oz and the lollipop kids? NO! It wasn’t her nature. That’s an example of why we have laws and ordinances!! Disgusted.

  6. Webster says:

    The Village wants to be very careful with their loyalties concerning masks. If the majority of villagers want masks to be mandatory, it would seem that their wishes are playing second fiddle to out of town visitors. Another vital part of any local economy (besides shops) is residential and your decisions might eventually impact real estate or, at least, change the fabric of village residency. People “buy” property in places where they feel heard, counted, cared for–however you want to say it. That’s where they want to live, pay taxes, contribute.

    Is there any way an emergency vote or poll could be taken for villagers to voice their preference concerning mandating masks or would that be “too much information?”

  7. Fernie says:

    Fairborn Kroger (1161 E Dayton Yellow Springs Rd) has grocery pick up and is not too awfully far from the village. Not trying to take Tom’s business, but if you need another option, we found the pick up efficient and the workers all wore masks. Order online at Kroger website; they shop for you and you schedule a time to pick up your order. We didn’t have to leave the car but wore our masks in the car anyway during the pickup. Your groceries are loaded for you shortly and you’re on your way.

  8. I was truly looking forward to coming home from Oregon. Enjoying all that “The Springs” has to offer WAS going to be one of the highlights. I’m a 63 yo retiree with emphysema. It’s my problem, my fault, I chose to put poisonous smoke into my lungs. That being said, I find the weak will of fragile, over indulged crybabies beyond belief. Millions of cases, close to 400,000 lives lost, lack of stable guidance from the top, a politicised and rigged CDC, true covid numbers covered up, “lost”, or rigged to hide the truth. Millions forced to work not knowing who is asymptomatic and has the “crud”, and you’re worried about pissing off a few irresponsible outlyers? Well, the local shopping and the volunteer work I was planning?, uh uh. I’ll spend my time, money and good cheer with responible businesses and people. I, along with everyone else, wish to see a return to normalcy, but guess what sunshine?…IT AIN’T HAPPENING. As far as being shamed?, shame on anyone who is flippant or cavalier with others well being.

  9. A conley says:

    Yellow Springs fought for liberal expression in the sixties and gas always prided itself on open mindedness and the freedom of choice. Interesting that the businesses, government, and residents of this “progressive” little town are so fine with allowing their CHOICE to mask or not to be impeded. Don’t be sheep, Yellow Springs. Mask if you want to, but remember that there must be equal choice to not mask without harrassment…or all your talk of tolerance is a lie.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I have been impressed with the Village’s response to the pandemic and the requirement of a mask. Collectively, we have been keeping the Village as safe as we can. I think there are few who do not wear a mask, and the villagers are respectful of those who cannot.

    We were frightened for the Village last Saturday as we, with our windows tightly closed, ventured to town to pick up a few items. People were walking shoulder-to-shoulder with no possibility of social distancing. Except for one elderly man known to the Village coming out of Tom’s, we witnessed a total lack of masks. I was afraid to leave the car as there was no way to do so safely.

    We wear masks to protect each other as the single-most-important way to combat the spread of the virus. Every piece of science I have read has stressed this measure as the most important one we can take to stop the spread of the disease. If all the people who work at Tom’s, the hardware, pharmacy and our beloved restaurant owners have gone above and beyond to care for us, do we not need to show that same compassion for them?

    If we expose our community and it’s resources to the continued spread of the virus, what will survive? If the people we rely on are no longer there, then what?

    It’s quite a simple request, the donning of a mask, and I support anyone who requires the wearing of a mask. We must continue to work together. Certainly there is a better way to assure safety. If it is not an all or none decision to require mask wearing, contempt will brew as some choose to wear a mask and some refuse afraid of dissuading customers. The visitors will be confused and upset. There were hundreds of people in town with few places to eat available, streets crowded, astounding lack of face masks and no public restrooms! This does not bode well for our community.

    I ask one simple question, are the lives of the villagers and it’s essential workers dispensable to protect the businesses of Main Street? We could set the example like the shining star of Ohio we are. People will learn quickly. I don’t have an answer for the shops who rely on tourists on the weekends and my only hope is there is a way with continuous support for them to maintain their businesses. It must be a terrible struggle.

    As a side note, on our way back home, we drove out Polecat Rd to the park and witnessed 4 motorcycles parked over the culvert and 4 people urinating in the creek. If the Village has no public restroom available anywhere, I fear for our surroundings. We witnessed this same thing on Corry St last week.

    Not all that is brought with the influx of visitors to our Village is welcomed, especially during a coronavirus pandemic. It seems requiring a mask for the protection of us all is a simple request. Villagers and businesses want to survive this. I feel compassion for the small businesses and hope for their survival. I was once a small business owner myself. Please support them and try to do it more safely during the weekdays.

    For the common good, please consider the face mask essential. We all want to survive!

  11. Ditto says:

    Also, Some people don’t wear masks because they either smoke (or have some breathing difficulties from smoking) and simply find a mask “inconvenient.”

    Be a darn good time to stop smoking, wouldn’t it? I quit years ago and know it isn’t easy, but it is accomplishable. Having something in your hand helps. I used prayer beads; and healthy snacks like celery or carrot sticks helps too. People don’t mean to be wayward; sometimes they just need more encouragement to do the right things. Good luck and stay healthy.

  12. GabrielleC says:

    Apparently many intelligent people are not comprehending the validated dynamics of safety in mask wearing and the evidence supporting masks in decreasing the spread of this horrid virus. Anyone could be a carrier and not have a single symptom; that mask may prevent someone’s death. I encourage those resistant to mask wearing in public to look at the science backing wearing masks to prevent spread of the virus. If you still refuse to wear a mask after knowing it could save lives, is that really how you want to be remembered when this crisis that’s already claimed over 100,000 American lives subsides? Perhaps reluctance is based on “ignorance” rather than “hatefulness.”

  13. Eeyore says:

    Masks work best at stopping the virus spread if everyone wears them who possibly can.

    Maybe the village needs more explicit signs. Something like “Don’t be an ass; wear a mask” and some illustrative picture perhaps. But say it in a nice way.

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