The Brookings City Council on Tuesday passed Ordinance 20-019, a mask mandate which requires face coverings at city-sanctioned events and in indoor public and business spaces where 6-foot social distancing is not possible. 

The new ordinance comes with exceptions, such as medical and mental health issues, disabilities, churches and those 5 and younger, and a resolution also passed Tuesday clarifies those exemptions. The meeting took place in the Swiftel Center to provide more room for attendees. 

The ordinance passed 5-2, with Councilors Leah Brink and Joey Collins being the dissenting votes. The resolution passed unanimously. 

The council extended COVID-19-related restrictions on businesses last week, and Ordinance 20-019 applies to mask usage for nearly everyone. It will be in place for 60 days. A fine, already within the city’s ordinances, could be used, but Briseno wants to take a gentler approach at first.

“The direction that I’ve asked the (police) chief is to ensure that we’re educating and giving warnings initially and working with our residents to understand the new law that’s in place,” he said.

Different jurisdictions

Many people commented in previous meetings about rules the Brookings School District has in place, especially about students wearing masks. In an email to the Register before the meeting, City Manager Paul Briseno, Brookings School Superintendent Klint Willert, and School Board Chair Deb DeBates confirmed the school makes those decisions.

“That is a school decision … not governed by the city,” Willert and DeBates said in a joint email.

“The city and schools communicate regularly,” Briseno said in an email. “The schools have a plan regulating their operations. This plan is more comprehensive than any city ordinance. Therefore, the city has specifically left the schools out of the ordinance regulations knowing they have a well-developed COVID plan.”

Briseno said after the meeting that individual businesses, like nursing homes, can set stricter rules of their own.

“A business can be more restrictive; they just can’t be less restrictive,” he said.

Ordinance 20-019

Briseno explained Ordinance 20-019 during the meeting.

The city uses metrics for transitioning in the COVID response plan, Briseno said, adding all metrics have been triggered except hospitalizations.

Brookings County’s case numbers have increased substantially over the past few weeks, he said.

“Since I reported last Wednesday at council, Brookings has had an increase of 172 cases and two hospitalizations,” he said.

Brookings is still designated as having “substantial spread,” Briseno said.

Ordinance 20-019 is a step to slow the spread.

“If in seven-14 days, any enacted amendments do not assist in reducing COVID growth, staff will have to recommend Phase 2, which closes bars, restaurants, casinos, salons, recreational facilities, gyms, and provides additional regulations in retail, should we reach those triggers,” Briseno said.

“Tonight’s amendments and actions are meant to reduce the spread. This is the last measure before having to recommend any type of business closures,” Briseno said.

Public comments

The council heard comments from people in attendance and from people voicing their concerns via Zoom and other means.

City Clerk Bonnie Foster read a letter by Joshua Westwick.

He asked the council to consider the medical evidence and scientific data and the substantial spread in the community.

“There are no easy answers or solutions,” Westwick said, before quoting Bunny Christie, Brookings Health Systems’ infection preventionist. “Spreading a disease, just like stopping it, is a group effort.”

“We must come together as a city to manage the substantial spread of COVID-19,” Westwick’s letter said.

Brookings Health System has asked that individuals wear a mask, “yet many individuals refuse to do, putting the health and well-being of our neighbors at risk,” Westwick pointed out. 

“Enacting policy to protect our city and all of its residents is the responsibility of this council,” Westwick’s letter read.

Kevin Grunewaldt asked that the audience respect the council and the council, in turn, listen to them.

People have been told so many different things from so many different people, he said.

“I believe we have a right to choose how we walk through our day, every day, with or without a mask,” Grunewaldt said. “When is it time for people of our community to walk through their day without government oversight?”

“It is still up to us to decide what is best for us and our family,” Grunewaldt said.

Chuck Dieter said he’s a retired professor who’s done a lot of work on statistics. 

“The stats presented by the epidemiologist from SDSU last week were misleading; because those numbers were only accurate if you assume all cases in the state have been diagnosed,” he said. “That assumption is not valid.”

In the last six months, there have been 173 deaths from COVID in the state, he said and compared that to deaths in the same time frame: 850 deaths from cancer, 850 from heart disease, 300 from accidents, 250 from chronic respiratory disease, 200 from Alzheimer’s, 200 from stroke, 110 from flu, 95 from suicide, 75 from liver disease, and 250 abortions.

“So COVID is just a minor number,” Dieter said.

Reed Mahlke, an attorney, said he was representing several bars and restaurants in the city.

“Are they expected to refuse service?” Mahlke asked, mentioning the businesses owners were expected “to assist” by the ordinance’s wording.

“They just want to see some light at the end of the tunnel. It seems like the rest of the state is seeing some light or doing something that’s different than the restrictions that the city is proposing,” Mahlke said.

“What happens if people decide to drive out of town 5 miles because the county has decided to be less restrictive than the city?” Mahlke asked.

He asked the council to encourage, not mandate, and to consider limiting the timelines instead of having 60 days.

Amy Hockett, of Sanford Clinic, said they have been working with city and county leaders all through the pandemic. 

“We follow CDC guidelines at Sanford,” she said. “We do not want to see our students go back from SDSU.”

She asked the council to pass the ordinance to slow the virus down to keep college and younger kids all in school.

Sam Smith teaches at SDSU and focuses on scientific literacy, “and the danger of cherry-picking studies just to support your view instead of looking at entirety of the data.”

“Almost unanimously, our health experts nationally, statewide and locally, support measures like this, notwithstanding our home research amateurs here,” Sam Smith said. 

“While I understand the appeal to personal responsibility, when you walk into a public space and pass the virus to a family’s grandparent, aunt, uncle, who ends up dying, how are we to hold you responsible for that? Your choices affect others and that’s where personal responsibility ends and public health begins,” Sam Smith said.

Dr. Sarah Smith tried to dispel some myths.

“COVID-19 is much deadlier than the seasonal flu virus,” she said. In the last five years, between 20,000 and 50,000 people in the U.S. die from influenza annually. 

“In the last six months alone, we have seen over 180,000 deaths from COVID,” Sarah Smith said.

“Some people think these numbers are inflated, but these deaths are above and beyond the predictable and expected deaths in this country due to cancer, due to heart disease or respiratory failure or sepsis or any other diagnosis,” Sarah Smith said. 

For a 65-year-old with influenza, one in 1,200 will die; for a 65-year-old with COVID, “it is one in 33 that can expect to die. These are sobering numbers,” Sarah Smith said.

“I want to make it clear that masks make a difference,” she said. Along with social distancing, tracing and hygiene, “mask wearing can have a huge impact on decreasing transmission.”

Masks work best “when community use is high,” Sarah Smith said.

Using masks is cheap, easy and “very effective at decreasing spread,” she said.

“I’m confident that using masks is a temporary measure and that someday we can resume life as normal,” Sarah Smith said.

Council comments

Councilor Nick Wendell said debate is the cornerstone of the democratic process. 

“In the midst of a public health crisis, I believe it’s irresponsible for us to equate those opinions with scientific evidence and facts,” he said, adding experts agree there are steps to take to slow the virus. 

“I happen to think that mask-wearing is a pathway back to normalcy or any sense of normalcy that we may have in coming months or in the next year,” Wendell said.

The South Dakota Department of Health has recently confirmed “40% of confirmed positive cases are asymptomatic,” Wendell said.

People have argued there’s no need to mask “healthy people,” he noted, but those asymptomatic people appear to be healthy, many don’t wear masks, but spread the virus in their community.

A significantly number of people in this community have refused to wear masks, Wendell said.

“So it is not a surprise that South Dakota has one of the highest reproduction rates in the country,” Wendell said. “Brookings County has actually a much higher reproduction rate than the average county in South Dakota.”

“This mask ordinance is a temporary mandate to keep us from completely going back to more stringent measures than we already are looking at now,” Councilor Ope Niemeyer said.

“This is about a public health risk to our community. It’s not about whether we have a choice, but an opportunity to keep this virus at bay,” he said.

“If we come together and make a concerted effort, include everyone in this community, I think this will make us stronger and more united,” Niemeyer said.

Councilor Leah Brink said she was taught to wash her hands and cover her mouth when she sneezed. 

“When I think about a cloth face covering, it does seem similar to covering my mouth and my nose when I sneeze,” she said. “Wearing a mask isn’t a big deal to me, and I am not anti-mask or anti-science,” Brink said.

She supports businesses who ask people to wear masks.

“And anyone who didn’t like that stance could have stayed away and spent their dollars elsewhere,” Brink said.

Throughout the pandemic, individuals have been making personal choices, and she understands that, she said. 

“I believe in as much personal freedom and liberty as possible,” Brink said. “Being pro-freedom does not make me anti-health, anti-medicine, or anti-science.”

We can disagree without spreading hate, she added.

She encouraged everyone to follow the mask mandate, adding she will.

“If we do this together and we really, really hit it hard for a few weeks, we have a chance to see our positive cases level off and start declining. … Please do this for each other and our great community,” she said.

“I trust you, Brookings; please try to do the right things,” Brink said.

Councilor Joey Collins said there are valid points to both sides.

He fears enforcement of the ordinance will be difficult.

“I wear a mask because I’m a high-risk person myself,” he said, stressing it was his decision. “I’m very apprehensive about the COVID.”

Councilor Patty Bacon said she wears a mask out of respect for other people’s safety and to reduce their risk.

She said they had gotten an email from a man whose 18-year-old daughter contracted COVID and now has permanent heart damage, even though she didn’t have a serious case of the virus.

“This disease affects everyone differently, and I feel it is my responsibility to do everything I can to keep as many people safe as we possibly can,” Bacon said.

“Nothing about this decision is easy,” Councilor Holly Tilton Byrne said.

She is aware of the negative effect on businesses and the personal struggles people are having and sees masks as a tool the council can use to help keep businesses open. Masks will help SDSU stay open so the students can study and work in local businesses. Local businesses rely on parents as employees. Masks will help the K-12 schools stay open and educate the young ones. 

“Brookings is a very strong and resilient town,” Tilton Byrne said. “We’re compassionate about our neighbors. And I know that, together, we are going to be able to overcome these temporary measures and help see us through the trial of this pandemic.”

Contact Jodelle Greiner at jgreiner@brookingsregister.com.

Courtesy of The Brookings Register

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