During Monday afternoon’s City Council work session, the Council decided to meet again on Wednesday so that City staff have time to find answers to legal questions. The session primarily focused on the enforceability of the mask ordinance and if the City could legally pass one.
Mayor Ron Anders said he spoke with Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller and Lee County Probate Judge Bill English since the City Council's last meeting. Fuller told Anders that Opelika is in a similar situation as Auburn and English is unsure if he has the authority to pass a mask mandate for Lee County.
Anders said Governor Kay Ivey believes mask ordinances are unenforceable, but she has allowed for local municipalities to make their own decisions on the matter.
According to EAMC chief of staff Dr. Michael Roberts, calls to East Alabama Medical Center’s 528-SICK hotline and to the Auburn University Medical Clinic have skyrocketed over the past few weeks. Close to 30% of administered COVID-19 tests have returned positive.
EAMC has seen increased hospitalizations and Roberts expects to see more. There are currently 15 COVID-19 patients in the ICU.
“There’s no one treatment that makes everyone better,” Roberts said. “People are still dying of this disease.”
Roberts said he is not surprised at the increase in hospitalizations, as tests and emergency room visits increased in previous weeks.
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“We’re discouraged right now because it’s beginning to feel like April again,” Roberts said. “[We can’t tell if] it’s ever going to stop.”
Roberts explained the peak time for transmission of COVID-19 is within a few days of its first symptoms. The disease is transmitted through respiratory droplets, which are then inhaled by surrounding people.
A town must see at least 70 % adoption of masks for masks to make a sizable difference, Roberts said. Masks are not 100 % effective at stopping the disease; they are somewhere between 30 % and 70 % effective, Roberts said.
“[Masks] do not restrict the flow of air that would affect your carbon dioxide or oxygen saturation in your bloodstream,” Roberts said. “I think that’s complete nonsense.”
Roberts said surgical staff wear surgical masks throughout the day without issue. He believes that a mask would only be limiting under strenuous activities such as running a marathon.
Ward 4 Council member Brett Smith asked if the mandate can be passed since it is in violation of a state law banning masks in public. City Manager Jim Buston stated the Alabama Attorney General has not stated a stance on the issue yet.
The ordinance would have to be approved by the state’s Department of Public Health in order to be passed, Buston said.
Buston said the fine would be $25 for each offense, with nonpaying people being assigned a court date.
Ward 7 Council member Jay Hovey and Ward 8 Council member Tommy Dawson had concerns with police engaging with the controversial issue. Dawson believes the ordinance could lead to the City or police officers being sued.
“It’s impossible, in today’s climate, to ask the police to enforce this,” Dawson said.
Ward 2 Council member Kelley Griswold said Huntsville enforces an ordinance created by their county’s health officer. Buston did not know if the county has the authority to create an ordinance or if Lee County has a health officer. Anders said he is routinely told that the state’s Department of Public Health is the authority on a health order.
Griswold said the ordinance as proposed to the Council is unenforceable. Multiple exceptions written into the ordinance are unenforceable.
“I think anyone who doesn’t want to wear one has an easy out,” Griswold said.
Ward 3 Council member Beth Witten would rather an educational campaign over a potentially unenforceable ordinance. She wants to work with local organizations to create a PR campaign for wearing masks. Griswold would like to hear from the business community on their thoughts.
Due to multiple unanswered questions regarding enforceability and violation of state code, the Council decided to meet again on Wednesday. The Council will not be able to vote to enact the ordinance, but they will be able to decide whether to propose an ordinance.
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