Columbus City Council delayed a vote on issuing a city-wide mask mandate during Tuesday’s council meeting, instead passing a measure to require masks in all city buildings, effective immediately.
Following an impassioned plea for a city-wide mask mandate by Ward 1 Councilwoman Ethel Stewart and discussions on whether residents would comply with the mandate and how the city would enforce one, Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens moved to require masks in city buildings. He also requested a special-call meeting to consider a city-wide mask mandate. Mayor Keith Gaskin said he planned to call one next week anyway to discuss the city’s bonded debt.
The mask proposal passed, 4-2, with Ward 3 Councilman Rusty Greene and Ward 6 Councilwoman Jacqueline DiCicco voting no.
The special-call meeting is set for 2 p.m. Aug. 26.
Stewart opened the discussion with a reference to a 13-year-old girl from south Mississippi who died from COVID-19 on Saturday — the fifth child to die from COVID since the pandemic arrived in the state — and the recent surge that has produced some of the highest daily and weekly cases since the start of the pandemic.
“Enough is enough,” Stewart said. ”We have a crisis. … When we had COVID before, we had businesses where employees got sick, citizens got sick and businesses had to shut down. We need to move ahead with a mask mandate.
“There are only four things we can do to stop this: social distance, sanitizing, masks and the vaccine,” Steward continued. “We can’t make (people) get the vaccine, but we can say if you don’t want to get the vaccine or wear a mask you can stay home. It’s (the council’s) responsibility to do something to protect our citizens. I’d like to see mask mandates imposed where we don’t see businesses having to close again.”
Gaskin asked if Stewart supported a city-wide mask mandate or a mandate that would require masks in city-owned buildings, noting the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors passed a mask requirement inside county buildings during its Monday meeting.
“I believe it should be city-wide,’” Stewart said.
The mayor then raised the issue of enforcement at a time when the city’s police department is combating an increase in crime.
“It would be a major burden for (Police) Chief (Fred) Shelton, not only to make sure people are wearing (masks) and wearing them correctly, but dealing with it at a time when we have a lot of other crime going on,” Gaskin said.
Shelton said enforcing a mask mandate would be an additional burden, but he noted the department would support the mask mandate if issued.
“It would be hard to enforce that mandate effectively,” Shelton said. “With the amount of crime we are seeing here and all the things we have to do, it would be very taxing. Again, the police department works for the city and we’ll do what is required, but it would be taxing on the police department. We wouldn’t be able to respond to other calls that we really need to respond to.”
Ward 5 Councilman Stephen Jones suggested the city could put the onus on businesses to enforce mask mandates.
“Wouldn’t it be easier to require businesses to require masks?” he asked.
Shelton said it would depend on whether businesses would accept the mandate and even then, it might require police involvement.
“We would still have to answer calls from businesses who report violations,” he said. “It would still be taxing,”
Stewart pushed back.
“Why are we assuming that businesses would not comply?” she said. “They don’t want to have to shut down again. I’m sure of that.”
With the exception of Stewart and Mickens, council members did not speak in favor of a city-wide mandate but were reluctant to dismiss the possibility Tuesday night.
“I agree with Ms. Stewart 100 percent, but we need to dot our Is and cross our Ts,” Mickens said. “I think it would be better to come back and talk about this at our special-call meeting next week.”
“We don’t need to wait much longer,” Stewart said. “The virus isn’t waiting.”
The mask mandate was not the only thing added to the agenda for the anticipated special-call meeting. The board will also make an appointment to the Golden Triangle Development LINK board after neither of the two applicants for the position, Quincy Harris and Colin Krieger, received enough votes for the appointment.
“This is not a reflection on either of the two applicants,” Gaskin said after a motion from DiCicco to reopen the position until the special-call meeting passed unanimously. “I believe both candidates would do a good job, but this is an important position and we’d like to make sure we open it up a bit to see if there are more people interested in serving.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]