New emergency COVID-19 ordinance defeated

ABERDEEN, S.D. (By Elisa Sand – As of Friday morning, no emergency COVID-19 ordinance will be in effect.

The Aberdeen City Council met in special session Thursday evening to discuss the second reading of a new COVID-19 emergency ordinance. After discussion that lasted about an hour, however, the emergency ordinance was defeated.

Five members of the council approved passage of the new emergency ordinance, but with four against, the ordinance did not pass. City Attorney Ron Wager chimed in after the vote noting that 60% approval was needed for an emergency ordinance, which requires approval by at least six on the council.

Voting against the ordinance were Mayor Travis Schaunaman, and Councilmen Josh Rife, Alan Johnson and Clint Rux. Rux cast his vote after a short pause noting he was torn on his decision.

Following defeat of the new emergency ordinance, a majority of the council decided not to pass the continuing resolution keeping the city’s emergency COVID-19 ordinance in effect. That means the ordinance set to expire Sunday, is no longer in effect as of 12:01 a.m. Friday.

The new emergency ordinance differed from the emergency ordinance that had been in effect in recent weeks. That ordinance required things like masks for hair stylists; routine and documented cleaning at all businesses; restrictions on group sizes to 10 people; and required social distancing and spacing of tables.

The new ordinance simply asked for social distancing between groups, which were no longer limited to members of the same family. Those groups were also not limited to 10 people.

Perspectives on the council varied as did their take on why the ordinance should or shouldn’t go into effect.

Councilman Josh Rife, for instance, felt enforcement of the ordinance would be impossible and it would hurt the city of Aberdeen if there are guidelines in place here that differ from other cities. Later he also said residents should be able to decide if they are comfortable to go out to a restaurant or stay home.

“Eventually we have to trust the citizens of the city and the business owners that they’re going to do what’s right,” Rife said.

But Councilman David Bunsness took issue with that statement noting that several city ordinances are in place because there are people who don’t do what’s right. He also said not everyone is on the same comfort level when it comes to COVID-19.

“We just don’t have 100% of the people saying everything is fine,” Bunsness said. “There are two sides to this story.”

Councilman Mark Remily also noted that enforcement of this ordinance will be based on complaints that are made to the Aberdeen Police Department.

“We don’t know what businesses will play by the rules and do the right thing.” Remily said.

Much of the council discussion came after Pizza Ranch owner Greg Jensen spoke during open forum about the city’s current emergency ordinance and how he was looking forward to that ordinance expiring. Today, he said, sales are down 40% to 50%, because less people are comfortable dining out.

But, he said, more recently he’s noticing families coming to the restaurant in groups that include young children.

“That’s a sign people are loosening up,” he said.

His restaurant is also offering a cafeteria style buffet, which means employees serve the food for the customers, but he planned to discontinue that after the city’s emergency ordinance expired.

Schaunaman specifically asked how seating would be calculated for a restaurant or bar. Councilman Rob Ronayne said each business would simply need to measure the distance between the individual bar stools or the tables.

Still others asked about CDC guidelines and how those would apply if this ordinance were not in effect.

Ronayne said CDC guidelines and those issued by the White House are recommendations. That means they’re voluntary, not mandatory.

Later Schaunaman noted the continued decline of active cases in Aberdeen, which now sit at 35 compared to about 60 a week prior.

“I think it’s time to support getting rid of this all together,” he said.

Ronyane agreed, but also said the trends Aberdeen is seeing with decreased numbers is because of council action and steps taken by the citizens.

“We should encourage our citizens to apply the minimum standards,” he said.

Councilman Dennis “Mike” Olson voiced support of the new ordinance noting a recent 23-0 decision by the Brown County Fair Board recommending not holding the Brown County Fair. That decision sends a clear message about the continued concern for people of Brown County, Olson said.

But, Councilman Alan Johnson said an ordinance also carries a certain amount of power. Not only does is have law enforcement power behind it but, he said, it can stifle confidence and commerce.

“When we come out with an ordinance, it’s layering over the varying rules they have,” Johnson said. “They are motivated to do what’s right, and they are doing what’s right.”

Johnson also expressed concern about how long it’s taking businesses to reopen and worried about more casualties.

While Rux voted against the ordinance, he also said, both having the ordinance and not having the ordinance is “a terrible thing either way you go.” But, he also asked what happens if there is another spike and more people get sick.

“Businesses can’t be shut down again,” he said. “That’ll be more of a death knell.”