Local business owners could be fined beginning next week for allowing unmasked customers into their buildings if a proposed ordinance is approved.

Parsons city commissioners will consider approval of the ordinance during their regular meeting on Monday. During a Thursday work session, the commission seemed to be leaning toward adoption of the ordinance.

Mayor Jeff Perez said he introduced the proposal after discussions with David Abrahams of Parsons, who Perez said made a passionate argument for requiring face masks, convincing the mayor it was the right thing to do after several conversations and some study of the issue. The proposed ordinance came about prior to Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive order requiring people in Kansas to wear masks in buildings accessible to the public and outdoors when social distancing is not possible.

Unlike the governor’s order, the local ordinance would come with an enforcement mechanism. It would allow the Parsons Police Department to issue citations to business owners that would come with a fine of $50 per violation. Business owners would have to post signs at their entrances notifying the public that masks must be worn inside, and they would be required to turn them away if they refuse. Customers who stay despite being told to leave could be charged with trespassing.

City Attorney Ross Albertini wrote an ordinance for Parsons based on an ordinance in Fayetteville, Arkansas, that Abrahams suggested. Albertini said enforcing the ordinance against the business owners would shift the burden away from individuals, reducing the number of people the police department would have to deal with.

Abrahams, speaking by phone during the work session, said there has been some confusion in the public about the effectiveness of cloth masks or surgical masks in fighting the spread of COVID-19. The masks, he said, protect others from contracting the coronavirus from the wearer, while respirators such as N-95 masks, protect the wearer. The cloth on masks absorbs the water vapor expelled during breathing, preventing it from spreading in the air and taking with it the virus that could be contained within. While the efficacy depends on the material, how the mask fits a face and other factors, Abrahams said, it has been proven that wearing masks significantly cut the risk of spreading the virus.

“It’s not a theory. There’s no doubt that when you cover your mouth and nose with anything, it is going to block or absorb some percentage of the water vapor that is leaving your lungs, and that is really what we’re talking about here because COVID is a respiratory infection,” Abrahams said.

Social distancing is not enough, Abrahams said, because water vapor can linger in the air, and a person can walk through it without knowing.

Abrahams said that an ordinance requiring face masks would not only benefit public health but also the economic health of the city. He said there is overwhelming support for the ordinance among the medical community and strong support from the small business community, although he didn’t mention how that support was gauged.

All of the commissioners voiced support for the ordinance.

Commissioner Leland Crooks said the science behind wearing a mask is “unbelievably clear.”

“Wearing a mask is just such a small thing to ask of people. It’s just crazy that they resist it,” Commissioner Leland Crooks said.

Commissioner Kevin Crooks said requiring masks to be worn is a simple way to keep people safe and possibly prevent further shutdowns.

Commissioner Tom Shaw said he also supports the ordinance, but he is concerned about the $50 fine included as a penalty. He is reluctant to vote on the ordinance with a fine system and suggested sitting on it and perhaps bringing it to a vote only after a local escalation in the number of COVID-19 cases, noting that there have only been two cases recently within the city.

“I guess I would just want to see the evidence that there is escalating or worsening conditions in our local jurisdiction before we started fining citizens or individuals for not wearing the masks,” Shaw said.

The whole point of the ordinance is to prevent an escalation, Crooks responded.

“The idea is to prevent that escalation and if you pass an ordinance without any teeth, I guarantee you everybody’s going to ignore it,” Crooks said.

Bolinger agreed, saying without the fine, it would be a “do-nothing” ordinance.

Perez said the intent of the ordinance is not to fine people but to protect public health.

Police Chief Robert Spinks said he wouldn’t anticipate issuing many citations, but it would be good to have a fining mechanism in place if it were needed to educate the public. The police would rely on self-enforcement as much as possible.

The ordinance would go into effect upon publication in the Parsons Sun, probably on Wednesday if the ordinance is passed Monday. It would expire on Oct. 1 unless renewed by the commission.

Kelly’s executive order took effect on Friday, but counties can either enforce it or opt out of it. Labette County Commission plans to discuss the order on Monday and may act on it then.

Perez, Crooks and Spinks wore masks during most of the Thursday work session, taking them off occasionally to speak. It was the first meeting for them to do so. Albertini wore a mask even when speaking, and it was his first meeting to wear a mask also.

Albertini said even without the ordinance, business owners could require customers to wear masks and ask them to leave if they refuse. If a customer refuses to leave, they could be charged with trespassing.

Among other agenda items for Monday, the commission plans to hear from city staff on a tennis court resurfacing project, the pit bull ordinance, auditorium policies and Music in the Park.

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