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Yellow Springs mask mandate to expire

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Do you still have to wear a mask in Yellow Springs? What if you are vaccinated? What if you are outside?

Ever since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidance last week stating those vaccinated against COVID-19 no longer need to wear masks or social distance in public — even indoors — it’s been unclear when, and where, to don a face mask in town.

Village Council tackled the matter at its May 17 regular meeting. In the end, Council decided to keep the downtown mask mandate until it expires on June 2, when Ohio lifts its state of emergency. So for the next two weeks, everyone — vaccinated or not — should technically wear masks on downtown sidewalks and inside all shops, when not eating or drinking.

After June 2, it will be up to individual businesses and organizations in town to decide if masks will be required, and by whom.

At Dino’s Cappuccinos, the influx of visitors over the weekend brought with it the challenge of enforcing a local mask mandate that still stands amidst diverging national, state and county health guidance.

Owner Dino Pallotta told Council members the coffee shop “had a couple of issues” when some patrons refused to wear a mask, and Yellow Springs Police were called when one encounter “got a little out of hand.”

“I just look for a unified front — starting from Village Council — not to give us guidance, but to take a stand and move forward,” Pallotta said.

“I don’t want to be on the firing line. My staff don’t want to be on the firing line,” he added.

Yet lifting the local mask mandate was the preference of a handful of businesses who, in a joint letter to Council, asked the Village to follow the new CDC guidelines.

“Should business owners want to institute a stricter mask policy in their own shop, I think they should be able to do so,” added Greene Canteen owner Brittany Baum, the letter’s author. “I do not think business owners should be responsible for telling everyone visiting Yellow Springs downtown that they should not follow CDC guidelines and should instead mask up.”

Baum’s letter was also signed by the owners of Glen Garden Gifts, Arthur Morgan House Bed & Breakfast, Wildflower Boutique, Blue Butterfly and Yellow Springer Tees.

The Village’s mask requirement, one of the state’s first, was initially passed on July 8, 2020, two weeks ahead of a statewide mask mandate. Paving the way for the mandate, the Village declared a state of emergency on April 20, 2020. Technically, the Village’s state of emergency expires when Ohio’s does — this June 2 — nullifying the downtown mask mandate.

Differing Council perspectives

On Thursday, May 13, the CDC released new guidance stating that fully vaccinated people “no longer need to wear a mask or physically distance in any setting” except where required to by other laws or regulations, including those set by local business and workplaces. Other exemptions include public transportation and healthcare settings.

Those who are not vaccinated, however, should continue to wear masks and social distance, according to the CDC.

The next day, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine adjusted the statewide mask order to match the CDC guidance. But that left a disconnect when it came to local laws, even though they can be stricter than the state’s. As a result, Council Member Laura Curliss drafted a proposal, which was sent to Council members on Friday as part of Council’s packet for the May 17 meeting.

Curliss suggested that Council act immediately to lift its mandate on wearing masks outdoors, which she said at the meeting was not backed by any scientific data.

“Science has shown there literally is not one reported case of casual outdoor transmission [of COVID-19],” she said.

Curliss proposed the Village keep the mask mandate downtown, but allow vaccinated people to be exempt from it. That would have two impacts, she said. First, it would encourage people to get vaccinated. Second, it would back downtown businesses who wanted to continue to require masks.

“I think businesses might want our support for indoor masking,” she said.

At the start of Council’s meeting, Curliss moved to add her proposed legislation to the agenda, but no Council member offered a second. Council President Brian Housh said that Curliss’ proposal came too late to be considered, and the matter was discussed during “New Business.”

Council Member Lisa Kreeger, a registered nurse, seemed to support the idea that a Village mandate would help businesses enforce their own rules. She said she worried that the CDC’s new guidance may lead to “another significant surge” of COVID-19.

“Business owners appreciated us taking a stand because it made it easier for them to enforce it,” she said. “From a safety point, we should be wearing masks inside if we’re not vaccinated, and I don’t think those who are not vaccinated will be wearing masks.”

Council Vice President Marianne MacQueen said while she is “comfortable having people outside downtown not wearing masks” she also is concerned for employees of downtown shops.

During his comments, Council Member Kevin Stokes leaned toward allowing private businesses to make the choice regarding whether or not they will require masks.

“Shop owners should be able to make decisions on how to protect their employees and we should support them,” he said.

For downtown businesses who want to keep a mask mandate in place past June 2, local police will still respond to calls to help them enforce it, Village officials affirmed.

In the end, Council took no direct action, and did not vote on the matter. Housh ended the mask discussion by saying, “It seems like we are in agreement that we will let the other restrictions expire and we will support businesses who want to require their patrons to wear masks.”

Further thoughts

In later interviews, several local business owners expressed confusion with Council’s stance during the meeting on masking downtown. Others wanted a different outcome.

Pallotta said at first he wasn’t sure exactly what Council had decided. He added that he wished the group came to a more clear consensus with a “consistent message” so that businesses could communicate that to their patrons.

“I don’t care what the decision is, as long as we’re all on the same page, and we can all deal with it,” Pallotta said.

Personally, Pallotta said, he wanted the Village to continue to require masks inside downtown shops, and his staff feels the same way. That way when a patron gets “adversarial” about being asked to wear a mask, it’s clear who enacted it.

“If the decision comes from the higher authority, it makes it easier on us to enforce it,” he said.

Don Beard, who owns Peach’s Grill, Ye Olde Trail Tavern and the Import House, also had questions after the meeting. Last weekend meant operating “under three different rules,” he said, referring to federal, state and local guidance, and many customers were confused.

After consulting with his employees, Beard said he’s making immediate changes to his mask policies. At Peach’s, masks will not be required, but “strongly encouraged,” according to new signage. At The Tavern, which Beard said often draws more families and older people, the mask requirement will remain in effect until June 2. The same will be true of the Import House, which is also moving to allow more customers in line with the rescinding of state health orders that required reduced capacities.

From Beard’s perspective, nothing will convince those who don’t want to wear a mask to do so, and some people seem to want to provoke a reaction by coming into an establishment unmasked.

“It’s like going to war,” he said. “There are people who are there to fight. They literally want you to tell them to wear a mask.”

“We’re more than a year into this and at this point if people don’t recognize the benefits of a mask, there are no words that are going to sway people one way or another,” he added.

Curliss said she wished Council had taken action to amend the orders to both give a mask respite to vaccinated citizens and those outdoors, as her legislation would have done. She is especially concerned that the outdoor mask requirement will stand over Memorial Day weekend.

“We have two weeks — including a holiday weekend — and we are asking our police department to enforce something from a health point of view has no rational basis,” she said.

As for indoor masking, Curliss said she still wants to poll downtown businesses, but she believes some may want the Village to back them up with a downtown mandate. But when it comes to requiring those who are vaccinated to wear masks, the law might not stand up to scrutiny.

“I think they want the Village’s support. I think they want the Village to require masks indoors,” she said. “Then, the question is, do we have a rational basis for requiring vaccinated individuals to wear a mask indoors?”

In explaining his decision not to add Curliss’ legislation to the agenda, Housh said he would have preferred the legislation had been publicised with a public notice first, which was not possible because of the short timeframe. Housh added that what he heard from local business owners is that they want to make their own decision about whether to require masks.

“I think they should be able to make their decision,” Housh said. “At least for me, I didn’t feel that we needed to hold on to the indoor or the outdoor requirement.”

“Ultimately, we decided to let the ordinance expire,” he said.

Other implications

With Ohio’s state of emergency ending June 2, Yellow Springs’ state of emergency also comes to an end, and with it several laws passed for its duration.

For instance, restrictions on downtown busking and street vendors will also be lifted June 2. Buskers and street vendors have been required to wear masks and social distance on local sidewalks and other public areas in a separate ordinance passed on July 8, 2020.

In addition, remote Council meetings, which are predicated on Ohio’s state of emergency according to a March 12, 2020, Village resolution, won’t be able to continue past the June 2 date, Village Council Clerk Judy Kintner later confirmed. Instead, Council and other public bodies must meet in person to comply with Ohio’s open meeting laws.

Council members briefly discussed the return to in-person or hybrid meetings, but did not come to any firm conclusions. They also seemed unclear that it may be required by law.

One proposal for Council’s next regular meeting on June 7 is to allow Council members only in Council Chambers, with the public to participate via Zoom and from Rooms A&B. However, that may not be legally permissible, unless additional legislation is passed in the interim, Kintner noted.

Council member Kreeger pointed out the conundrum Council faces with regard to enforcing a mask policy at Council meetings for those who have not been vaccinated, saying that the Village “must not ask” someone whether or not they are vaccinated, as it would violate medical privacy laws.

Council member Stokes said he preferred staying remote for that reason.

“I don’t want to be in a room unless I have some assurance that everyone else has been vaccinated,” he said.

Whether masks will be required in public facilities past the June 2 date was not discussed at Council’s meeting. Village Manager Josué Salmerón said in a later interview that the pool, which opens on May 29, will operate as it did before the pandemic, with no outdoor masks or social distancing required, although masks will be required in the pool’s changing rooms. Rules for the Bryan Center and the train station have not yet been set, but Salmerón said he is leaning toward requiring masks indoors for those who are unvaccinated, with an honor system for compliance.

Another issue broached was that of outdoor seating for restaurants on downtown sidewalks. Village officials suggested that would be permissible, although the Village may consider limits if the seating impedes foot traffic downtown.

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