The Mobile City Council will meet again Wednesday to vote on an ordinance requiring masks to be worn in public places to reduce the spread of COVID-19, after one of its seven members withheld unanimous consent to allow a vote Tuesday, following a two-and-a-half-hour debate that included chief medical officers of all of Mobile’s hospitals urging councilors to act.
Councilman John Williams, who delayed the vote on Tuesday, cited city code in arguing the council would be going against its own rules by voting on something before the next regular council meeting July 7.
“I think it sets a bad precedent,” he said. “I’m a little disappointed in the whole process and quite frankly I think the whole process should’ve been handled differently.”
A similar tactic was used last year to settle the council’s lawsuit against Mayor Sandy Stimpson. A vote on the budget, which was at the center of the lawsuit, was delayed through the withholding of unanimous consent only to be taken up a few days later in a specially-called meeting. Councilwoman Bess Rich, who opposed the settlement, was quick to remind Williams of this.
“We have gone already and colored outside the lines on a budget meeting,” she said. “On that issue it seemed to be an OK thing to do, and I think it’s OK on this.”
Councilman Fred Richardson also made note of last year’s budget vote.
“I withheld unanimous consent and said we should hold it over until the next meeting and a meeting was called in the middle of the week,” he said. “It was voted on against my objections … you ran over me like a freight train. So, let’s rock and roll.”
Council attorney Chris Arledge acknowledged the city code is clear that an item delayed in this manner is supposed to be brought up again at the following regular meeting, but he also pointed to a clause stating an ordinance with supermajority support could not be invalidated by a violation of the city code. He also confirmed Council President Levon Manzie or a subset of three councilors could call for a special meeting.
Shortly after the debate ended, Manzie scheduled a meeting on the mask ordinance for 2 p.m. Wednesday. The ordinance is expected to pass at that time.
Stimpson, who is a co-sponsor of the ordinance along with Rich, Manzie and Councilman Joel Daves, said he still supports the move. He told reporters after the debate the measure was added to the agenda at the urging of medical professionals, including Mobile County Health Officer Dr. Bert Eichold and the Medical Society of Mobile.
Stimpson said his thinking has evolved on the creation of a mask ordinance, after he watched COVID-19 infection rates spike since Memorial Day. Stimpson added there would have to be conversations related to tweaking enforcement of the ordinance once it’s passed by the council.
Councilors heard from Eichold, Medical Society of Mobile President Dr. George Koulianos and the chief medical officers of Providence Hospital, Mobile Infirmary and USA Health. All the medical experts spoke in favor of the ordinance.
Koulianos cited an increase in positive infections in Mobile County from 9 to 13 percent of those tested. He also cited a record increase of 118 cases in the county on Tuesday.
“Hopefully the council will address this,” he said. “It’s kind of a big deal.”
When asked about whether masks cut off a body’s supply of oxygen or increase carbon dioxide, Koulianos said he wears one six to seven hours per day.
“So far, I think my carbon dioxide levels are fine,” he said. “That’s just false news.”
Infirmary CMO Dr. Bill Admire told councilors the U.S. makes up a quarter of all COVID-19 cases globally and has seen a significant number of deaths.
“We’re at 127,000 deaths,” he said. “That’s a lot of people and it’s getting higher.”
Mobile County, he said, has about 2,000 cases and 137 deaths from the virus. Masks, he added, have been shown in many studies to be effective at limiting exposure to the virus.
Williams admitted he thinks masks work and wears them in public when he can’t socially distance. However, he said he didn’t believe the city government should require them, especially when Eichold has the authority to mandate masks be worn countywide. Eichold told councilors he wanted Mobile to be the first municipality in the county to pass an ordinance.
Susan Murphy asked councilors to not approve the mandate, noting the global recovery rate for COVID-19 was more than 99 percent. She quoted studies that showed masks “provided little to no help” in the spread of the disease. Murphy testimony got heated when after her five minutes of allotted time was up she was cut off by Council Vice President C.J. Small. She argued the doctors received more time and demanded to be allowed to finish. The doctors, who all support the ordinance, did seem to get more time to speak, but councilors spent a lot of time asking questions of them.
The proposal would enact fines of $50 for a first offense and $100 for a second offense and would only apply to areas within the city limits and police jurisdiction.
The ordinance follows Gov. Kay Ivey’s previous public health orders related to exemptions for places of business, which means masks would not be required in office settings. However, although not specifically spelled out, Daves said he would look to add language to the ordinance requiring masks be worn by retail and restaurant employees.
The ordinance makes exceptions for those 2 years old and younger and for activities in an outdoor space where social distancing can be practiced. The exception does not include parking lots or crowded sidewalks. There is also an exception for those “persons for whom wearing a face covering poses a substantial mental or physical health, safety or security risk.”
The ordinance also defines a public space to include a vehicle where people from different families would be riding together. Stimpson told reporters he would speak about enforcement issues at the next meeting, but an administration official told Lagniappe the ordinance should be viewed as a health order as much as a law. There will be amendments to the ordinance.
If passed, it’s unclear when the ordinance would take effect.
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