Aberdeen City Council approves mask resolution

ABERDEEN, S.D. (By Elisa Sand esand@aberdeennews.com) – After significant discussion Monday, a resolution that encourages mask use in Aberdeen was approved and is now in effect.

The resolution is not a new law. There is no punishment for people who don’t wear masks. It merely states that since the state is in a declared health emergency —the COVID-19 pandemic — mask use is encouraged.

The resolution was approved 5-4 at the city council meeting. Mayor Travis Schaunaman and councilmen Justin Reinbold, Alan Johnson and Josh Rife voted no.

While many residents submitted comments in advance of the meeting, one man in attendance, who didn’t identify himself, was asked to leave when he spoke out of turn with a rant about CDC corruption.

In presenting the resolution, City Manager Joe Gaa said mask use “might be the most controversial and divisive issue” he’s seen in local government in his 20-year career. But, he said, the goal of the resolution is to keep people healthy and alive.

Of the public comments received at his office, he said, about 100 were in favor of mask use regulations and 50 were opposed. Responses to social media posts about the issue, he said, were evenly split, he said.

Many on the council noted feedback they’ve received.

Councilman Dave Lunzman said about 85% of the comments he received by email or through social media were against a mask mandate. Councilman Clint Rux said about 70% of the people who contacted him opposed the idea. Councilman Alan Johnson said the people he’s heard from who are opposed outnumber those in favor seven to one.

Councilman Rob Ronayne said he would have preferred discussion on Monday about an ordinance requiring mask use, but he also understands the sentiment against the word mandate.

“This is an encouragement for citizens to do what we know should be done,” Ronayne said.

The approved resolution outlines recommendations on when to wear masks, but also sparked a variety of comments.

Councilwoman Tiffany Langer said she’s yet to find a medical professional or front line worker who doesn’t feel overwhelmed.

“Our medical professionals are asking us to do something,” she said. “This is the least we can do.”

Lunzman said the resolution supports Mask Up South Dakota, a group of health care organizations — Sanford and Avera included — that are encouraging mask use, but also not asking for a mandate.

“This is about as specific as you can get from health care leaders,” he said. “I’m happy to lead the pack and say this is what we should do. I’m not going to lead the pack and say you have to.”

Johnson said he’s heard from medical professionals who have a contrary view on masks because people who use them are also testing positive for COVID-19.

“They’re one tool, but they are not a panacea,” Johnson said.

Johnson said he wears a mask to be courteous to others, but any sort of restriction has a ripple effect on the economy.

“I want to lend support to the practice of it, but not to mandate it,” he said, though he voted against the resolution.

Rife said he heard from people who have asked if high-risk people should just stay home. His answer is no since several businesses have adjusted to accommodate those customers with curbside pickup and other options.

Rife said he opposes a mandate because of the harm it would do, but he also reached out to the Aberdeen Area Chamber of Commerce to see if it could develop a poster for businesses encouraging masks and other best practices. An electronic version of that poster is available from the chamber for any business upon request, he said.

Councilman Mark Remily said the past few months and recent weeks have been “the most perplexing time for me on the council.”

He recently reached out to a former Aberdeen resident who is now a doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital — a state where masks are mandated. That doctor referred to mask use as a minimal inconvenience when considering his health, the health of his family and the health of his co-workers, Remily said.

Rux said he would support the resolution, but also recognizes how little it does.

“We’re spending a lot of time on something that does nothing,” he said. “All we’re doing is saying we’d like to see this. I’ll vote yes because it’s good to recommend it, but it changes nothing.”

Johnson said encouragement and recommendations bring the topic to people’s attention, and those who are concerned will modify their behavior and wear a mask.

But Rux doubted those opposed to mask use will change their minds. He pointed out that no funding is being set aside for any type of marketing campaign encouraging mask use.

Toward the end of discussion, a modified version of the resolution was proposed by Schaunaman, who said the resolution reads like an ordinance. He then outlined his proposal he felt would make it clearer it is a resolution — like changing “face coverings to be worn within the city limits” to “face covering use recommended.” Other edits were also suggested.

Ronayne opposed those changes.

“This waters down the resolution,” he said. “I’d rather see a strong resolution that says this is what we need to be doing.”

No action was taken on the proposed changes.

Meeting schedule

Gaa also reminded the council that the board’s new schedule with meetings the first, third and fourth Monday of each month goes into effect Nov. 11. That means no meeting on Nov. 30. Next month’s meetings are on Dec. 7, 21 and 28. The has previously met weekly.

City Attorney Ron Wager said the council will also be asked to approve its new city council handbook, which outlines meeting procedures to replace Roberts Rules of Order.

(visit www.aberdeennews.com)