People wear masks as they attend the opening night of the Elayne Goodman gallery exhibit on Thursday at the Rosenzweig Arts Center in Columbus. All attendees were required to wear a mask, and if they didn't bring their own they were provided one at the door. The cities of Columbus, Starkville and West Point all will consider some type of mask mandate next week. Photo by: Claire Hassler/Dispatch Staff
July 3, 2020 10:34:20 AM
Recent spikes in confirmed cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus, both locally and statewide, are prompting city and county leaders in the Golden Triangle to consider requiring citizens to wear protective face coverings in public.
Columbus City Council will discuss possible mandatory mask-wearing policies on Tuesday, Mayor Robert Smith said, though a decision may not come that soon. He said he hopes the council will eventually pass an ordinance requiring citizens to wear masks before they enter retail stores and other businesses except for restaurants, gyms and fitness centers.
Smith said he understands some may perceive the requirements as infringing upon their rights. However, he said, the city needs to prioritize citizen safety, and he would like to see the ordinance in place until further notice to avoid potential spikes in the number of cases. He would then recommend lifting the mandate when the city sees a significant drop in the number of cases.
"You have (people saying), 'I have my rights, the government shouldn't try to mandate wearing masks,'" he said. "The way I look at it, it's for the safety of yourself and the other people also."
Businesses already have the right to deny service to anyone who doesn't wear a mask, Smith said. If the city passes a mask requirement, he said police officers could give a warning for a first offense and issue a fine between $300 and $1,000 for a second offense.
The Mississippi State Department of Health reported 870 new cases and 10 new deaths -- including one each in Lowndes and Oktibbeha counties -- from Wednesday alone, bringing the state up to 28,770 confirmed cases and 1,092 deaths since the global pandemic began in March.
Ward 6 Councilman Bill Gavin said he supports wearing masks given the case spikes.
"I know it's inconvenient, but sometimes we have to do things that are inconvenient for the betterment, for the good of everybody," Gavin said.
However, he said he is worried the city may not have enough police officers to sufficiently enforce the ordinance. He also is worried a mask order could also violate people's constitutional rights.
"Public safety comes first," he said, "but there's also the legality (issues) for the city to consider."
Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens said he also supports masks, but instead of a sweeping requirement, the city needs to tailor make its policies for certain groups, such as people with underlying health conditions. He also agrees with making exceptions for restaurants, where customers have to eat.
Rather than a violation of freedom, Mickens said masks are life-savers just like seatbelts.
"The law requires that you wear a seatbelt. People were saying the same thing," Mickens said. "But seatbelts save lives. The masks save lives."
Lowndes County supervisors, however, have yet to place the issue on the agenda. Supervisors Leroy Brooks of District 5 and Jeff Smith of District 4 told The Dispatch they support mask wearing but need more information to determine if the county needs to make it mandatory.
Brooks said he needs to consult with state health officers and to see a steady increase in cases in Lowndes County. For now, he said, he strongly recommends wearing a mask in public, and if the board puts forward a mask requirement, he would not oppose it.
Jeff Smith said he will support mandatory mask-wearing policies if surrounding cities and counties adopt similar ordinances.
"It makes sense for us to do the same thing so that we can all be working toward the same objective, and that is to slow the spike," he said.
Wearing masks in public would effectively help reduce the spread of the virus through droplets when a person coughs, sneezes or talks, said Ana Bonetti, a pulmonologist at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle.
Oktibbeha County has 516 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 25 deaths, Lowndes County has 459 cases and 12 deaths, and Clay County has 244 cases and 10 deaths as of Wednesday at 6 p.m., according to the MSDH website.
Starkville has votes for new mask order
Starkville aldermen will consider Tuesday evening approving its second mask requirement of the pandemic, and Mayor Lynn Spruill said she is confident the measure will pass.
"For our economy to go back to nobody being able to go anywhere or do anything is just a horrendous option for us, so how do we prevent that? Apparently masks are going to be one of the ways we do our best to keep that from happening," Spruill said. "To me, it's an easy decision and a simple thing to ask residents and citizens to do."
Gov. Tate Reeves issued a "shelter in place" order for most of April, which required businesses to close or limit their activity. The city of Starkville then required employees and customers over the age of 6 at all businesses to wear masks from April 28 to May 11.
The board of aldermen lifted the requirement after Reeves allowed restaurants and gyms to open, and Spruill said at the time that requiring masks at other businesses would seem "arbitrary" and like "picking and choosing."
Starkville's previous mask ordinance required businesses to supervise their customers and station employees at the door to make sure no one without a mask could enter. Spruill said a new ordinance would have the same requirement.
If someone repeatedly refuses to put on a mask before entering a business after the door monitor, the business should call the police, who will issue a citation and a fine, Spruill said.
"Everybody understands what's going on, they've been warned, so if you're going to put everybody in jeopardy, you're going to get a citation," she said.
Spruill and several aldermen agreed that masks should help Starkville contain the virus before thousands of Mississippi State University students return in August for the new semester. Ward 4 Alderman Jason Walker said it is "in Starkville's best interest" for MSU classes and sporting events to be safe to attend.
Aldermen Hamp Beatty of Ward 5 and Sandra Sistrunk of Ward 2 both said a mask requirement would reduce the risk of exhausting resources at OCH Regional Medical Center. They also emphasized the importance of protecting others, more than the self, by wearing a mask.
"There's almost an ethical responsibility to the rest of the community to try to limit this," Sistrunk said.
The remaining four aldermen could not be reached for comment by press time.
The Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors will discuss enacting their own mask requirement at Monday's meeting. The board previously required masks only in county-owned buildings, and District 1 Supervisor and Board President John Montgomery said he believes there is no need for an ordinance beyond this.
"With us being a rural county as we are, out in the open, I honestly don't see how face masks would help any more than social distancing," he said.
District 3 Supervisor Marvell Howard said he will do enough research by Monday to come to a decision in case the board votes on a potential mask requirement, and District 2 Supervisor Orlando Trainer said he fully supports it already.
"I don't think it's too much of an inconvenience considering the alternative (of getting sick) if you don't do it," Trainer said.
West Point required customers at retail stores to wear masks from May 11 to May 25. The board of selectmen will discuss reviving the ordinance at a special-call meeting Tuesday, where North Mississippi Medical Center-West Point administrator Barry Keel will offer his perspective to the board, Mayor Robbie Robinson told The Dispatch.
"We'll see how it plays out, but I can't really predict (an outcome) right now," he said.
Members of the Clay County board of supervisors could not be reached for comment by press time.
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