People in Parsons will have to begin wearing face masks within buildings accessible to the public and at many other work places in about two weeks.
City commissioners approved an ordinance on a unanimous vote Monday evening to require the preventive measure in the fight against the spread of COVID-19.
The commissioners during a Thursday work session discussed an ordinance that would require businesses to post signs at entrances stating that masks are required. If the business owners allowed people in the building without masks they could be subject to a $50 fine, plus $90 in court costs.
After immense pressure from business owners and others, the commission modified the ordinance, placing the burden mostly on individuals instead of the business owners. Now, individuals could be fined $50, but only after their second offense. They also would have to pay $90 in court costs. A first offense would bring a warning, and the offender would have to pay a $15 fee if cited a second time. The commissioners also added a 14-day grace period to the ordinance, which will take effect upon publication in the Parsons Sun, possibly as early as Wednesday. Publication would begin the countdown to enforcement.
The commissioners also agreed to spend up to $10,000 on face masks and advertising to educate the public about the new ordinance. The masks will be given to the public.
Monday’s vote came after more than two hours of discussion. The commissioners heard from medical professionals and business owners as well as other people from the public.
Those speaking had to wait their turn in the lobby of the Municipal Building to limit the number of people in the commissioners room. There were about 40 people who came and went in the lobby. Only a few wore masks. Loud cheers erupted from the lobby each time someone spoke in opposition of the ordinance. One man sarcastically shouted, “Good job, commissioners,” after the vote.
Business owners will still need to post a sign at their entrances, but there will be no fining mechanism in place for those who allow people in their buildings without masks. They could have people removed from their buildings by police for trespassing if they refuse to leave, but that will be their choice.
Business owners also must require employees to wear masks. Businesses with 10 or fewer people who can socially distance and are not working in areas that are accessible to the public will not have to wear masks under the ordinance.
When people are eating or drinking, they won’t have to wear masks. In gyms, those exercising also will be exempt, but they must wear a mask in the facility when not exercising. Exceptions also will be made for people with disabling conditions that would prevent them from safely wearing a mask. The ordinance also pertains to outdoor spaces when social distancing is not possible.
Mayor Jeff Perez, who introduced the ordinance with strong encouragement from a resident, said the city needs to treat COVID-19 as a “true health issue,” and not a political or partisan issue.
“We’ve got a wildfire burning around us, and it’s not here today, but it could be here soon,” Perez said.
Dr. Ben Legler of Labette Health said he has spoken to fellow physicians in other areas of the U.S. who have said COVID-19 is like nothing they’ve ever seen. One patient he knows used to run 5K’s but now can’t take 10 steps without running short of breath.
“If we wait until the virus is out of control and it actually is going crazy in this town, it’s too late. That’s why before there are lots of cases, before it’s gone crazy — that’s when we need to be doing this,” Legler said.
Brian Williams, Labette Health CEO, spoke on behalf of the hospital’s medical executive committee, which was in favor of a mask ordinance, although Williams wasn’t sure if fining businesses was the right method of enforcement. Williams said if one life is saved by him wearing a mask, it’s worth that small sacrifice.
Dr. Shawn Zibrunes, an obstetrician/gynecologist at Labette Health, spoke about the negative effects on pregnant women.
“We find out more and more every day. That’s the nature of medicine and science,” Zibrunes said.
Zibrunes said wearing masks is an extremely simple way to prevent a local catastrophe.
“It’s a matter of life and death. It’s not a matter of whether or not I feel comfortable wearing a mask. It’s a matter of protecting those around us,” he said.
Other people, however, spoke about how forcing them to wear a mask takes away their freedom.
“I feel it is my choice to wear a mask. I feel that my health is my choice,” Shanda Farmer of Parsons said.
Farmer said it’s not natural to breath with mouth and nose covered.
“We were created to breath 100% air. I believe that if we were to have our face covered up, then we would have been created with something to cover our face,” she said.
Darren Dusher, pastor of Berean Baptist Church, said churches under federal law are not to be treated as public spaces. He asked if churches would be subject to the ordinance, and City Attorney Ross Albertini said they would.
Ryan Robertson of Parsons, a former city commission candidate, said that passage of a mask ordinance would be the end of some liberties.
“This is ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous. You’re treading on people’s civil rights. This is government overreach,” Robertson said.
Robertson said the law was totalitarian and bordering on Nazism.
Most of the business owners speaking primarily were against being the agents of enforcement for the ordinance.
Jennifer Eichinger, a public accountant in Parsons, said she didn’t like the uniform approach to businesses. She said she knows what is best for her business and customers.
“I don’t believe in the one-size-fits-all. We need to tailor this down to what works,” Eichinger said.
David Stice, owner of SEK Auto, asked if the city would reimburse him for his lost business and said he wouldn’t enforce the ordinance in his business.
Jim Zaleski, economic development director, also opposed the ordinance.
“My biggest fear is this will be a giant wet blanket on our economic opportunity,” he said.
Zaleski said the city already suffers from people shopping out of town, and many others might leave town to shop if they don’t want to wear masks. After the vote, Zaleski said that some businesses will close their lobbies and two will not reopen if the mask order is in place.
The commissioners received numerous communications from business owners and others in town, and they had discussed with city staff alterations to the ordinance prior to Monday’s meeting.
Near the beginning of the discussion, Commissioner Leland Crooks said the ordinance would not pass as was originally discussed, indicating that an ordinance would be considered instead that didn’t fine businesses. Albertini, the city attorney, had written the original ordinance based on a Fayetteville, Arkansas, ordinance, but before Monday’s meeting began he had written an optional ordinance, which the commission approved with small changes.
All five commissioners wore masks during the meeting as did about half the city staff in attendance.