Varied views on mask rules
- Published: May 28, 2020
“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.
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.
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.
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.”