STARKVILLE — With a 5-2 vote Tuesday, aldermen upheld its requirement for people to wear protective face coverings in businesses and other buildings where social distancing may not be possible.
The vote came the same day Gov. Tate Reeves lifted all state-level restrictions meant to curb the spread of COVID-19 — including a mask mandate and public gathering limitations — due to case numbers dropping precipitously over the past several weeks. His announcement means local governments are not required to enforce COVID restrictions, but they still may through their own ordinances.
Both the city’s and Oktibbeha County’s capacity restrictions on public gatherings align with the state’s, and therefore are now expired. Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver introduced a resolution Tuesday for the city to follow the governor’s lead on removing the mask mandate. However, only Ward 3 Alderman David Little joined him in the vote, and Carver’s effort failed.
While the board is maintaining the mask order, restaurants and businesses can operate under full capacity and are not required to close by a certain time.
Carver said he believes the city of Starkville should be encouraging people to wear masks, not requiring them to do so. He said he “has never been an anti-mask guy, but more of a pro-choice guy.”
“I’m hearing a lot of people saying they’re done wearing masks,” Carver said. “I think we should just be following the governor’s recommendations.”
One of the five votes to maintain the mask mandate, Ward 5 Alderman Hamp Beatty, said it is imperative to continue following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines until enough people have been vaccinated to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. He said he would prefer the city take the mandate a further step to include social distancing to restaurants, bars and businesses.
“We want to give businesses every opportunity to operate as normal as we can, but first and foremost we want to protect people’s lives,” Beatty said. “I hope it (having no capacity limit) doesn’t increase the spread of the virus.”
Mayor Lynn Spruill said she is comfortable with Starkville keeping the mask ordinance right now and knows that the board will find the right time to lift the mandate, possibly after Mississippi State University students complete their spring term.
“I think it’s important that we keep it until at least the end of the semester, which would be April 30,” Spruill said. “That would give us another 60 days for people to get their vaccines. Obviously, it’s a board decision, and there are lots of differing opinions. I do feel like as more people get vaccinated though, we will find that comfort level in taking that mask requirement off.”
Carver confronted Mayor Spruill about her not following orders and wearing a mask while attending a Mississippi State University baseball game this past weekend. Photos of Spruill sitting maskless at her seat for the games circulated on social media.
He asked the board how they should expect people to wear masks if they do not always follow guidelines themselves.
Spruill responded that while she might have been the focus of attention by not wearing a mask for MSU baseball games, she was not in violation of the mask ordinance and was following all of the rules set in place by the university.
“Dudy Noble is outside,” Spruill said. “I was not inside flaunting myself in contravention of our mask mandate, and I was also enjoying eating and drinking. I’ve also had both of my shots and was in my own little bubble. As I made my way to my seat, I wore my mask.”
The MSU campus is a state-regulated facility located outside the city limits.
Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk echoed the views of Beatty and Spruill and said that Tuesday’s meeting was not the appropriate time to lift the mask mandate. She said she believed this topic should be based on science, not politics.
“This should absolutely not be a political discussion,” Sistrunk said. “It should be based on science. By rushing into this tonight, it tends to look more political than it might be. We have not had time to develop a coherent policy or strategy for how we follow along with this.”
Beatty said he is confident in the decision the board made and thinks the mask mandate should not be lifted until at least late summer.
“I think it’s wrong to assume that we’ve gotten to the point where we can open back up completely,” Beatty said. “We are nowhere near where the CDC says we need to be with people vaccinated in order to relax and have modest restrictions. The virus hasn’t stopped, and we can’t take any setbacks.”
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.
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