Washington City Council Chambers

A new mask mandate is now in effect in the city of Washington after members of the city’s governing body approved the COVID-19 mitigation effort in a 5-2 vote Monday night.

Voting in favor of the mask mandate were Ward 1 Councilman Nick Obermark, Ward 2 Councilman Mark Wessels, Ward 3 Councilman Greg Skornia, Ward 3 Councilman Joe Holtmeier and Ward 4 Councilwoman Gretchen Pettet. Voting against the mask requirement were Ward 2 Councilman Mark Hidritch and Ward 3 Councilman Jeff Patke.

Ward 1 Councilman Steve Sullentrup was absent.

This was the second time in three months that a proposed mask mandate was brought before the city’s governing body for discussion and possible adoption.

The first proposed mask mandate was defeated in August after the council voted 4-4, and Mayor Sandy Lucy cast the deciding “nay” vote.

Those voting against the ordinance in August were: Lucy, Sullentrup, Obermark, Hidritch and Patke.

Voting in favor were Wessels, Skornia, Pettet and Holtmeier.

The city’s decision follows the Franklin County Commission’s mask mandate that went into effect Nov. 20. Unlike the county’s mandate, which is in effect for 30 days, the city’s mandate is not tied to a specific end-date but will conclude when the city achieves certain safety metrics. County leaders can extend their mandate beyond the deadline if they feel conditions have not improved in the county. 

There was no other business before the council on Monday evening. The meeting was well-attended by Washington area residents in support and in opposition to the mask mandate. Those who opposed the mask mandate regularly applauded, even at times giving ovations to the city council members who spoke against the mandate, and peppered the meeting with their own comments. A group of Washington area residents demonstrated outside Washington City Hall prior to the meeting.

What Is the Mandate?

The Washington ordinance says everyone aged 10 and older within the city limits should wear a mask when at work or in public settings where they are near people who are not household family members.

The ordinance defines a mask as a “covering made of cloth, fabric or other soft or permeable material, without holes” that “covers only the nose and mouth and surrounding areas of the lower face.” The mask can be homemade or factory-made.

The mask can be removed whenever an individual is at home; in a vehicle; able to socially distance themselves from another; when exercising outdoors or while exercising indoors but at least 6 feet from another person; or when they are in a business or office and are not within 6 feet of another person. Masks also can be removed while eating or drinking at a restaurant, but the masks should be worn when walking to or from tables or booths.

Individuals with documented medical conditions, mental health conditions or disabilities, including those who are deaf or hard of hearing, are not required to wear a mask.

Employers in the city also are required to ensure that “sufficient quantity of masks” are available to each employee.

City Administrator Darren Lamb said the city’s mask mandate, which was approved as an ordinance, is loosely based on a similar ordinance that was approved by the Columbia City Council.

Weeks after its implementation, the mask mandate in Columbia had lowered the city’s coronavirus positivity rate from 16 percent in July to 7.2 percent two weeks after being implemented, according to health officials in Boone County. City leaders are hoping for a similar turnaround in Washington.

How Long Will the City Ordinance Be

In Effect?

The city ordinance will remain in effect until the city’s 14-day rolling average of new COVID-19 cases per capita falls below 25; the average number of COVID-19 hospitalizations at Mercy Hospital Washington has either plateaued or fallen over a 14-day period; and the number of deaths caused by COVID-19 have fallen or stayed the same during a 14-day period. These are the same metrics — known as the Harvard University Global Health Model — the city uses to determine whether city-owned facilities are available for rent and if mass gatherings of 50 or more people can be held.

When at least two of the three metrics move from the “red zone” to the “yellow zone,” city leaders say the citywide mask ordinance will be reviewed, and city leaders will make the determination whether the ordinance should expire. Currently, all three of the metrics are in the “red zone.”

Lucy said she sees these metrics as “measurable goals” that the entire city can work to achieve.

“We are using these metrics because we didn’t want it to be on the whim of someone to say, ‘OK, we are done.’ Instead, we wanted a measurable goal,” Lucy said.

Washington’s Emergency Management Director Mark Skornia will use the data from the Franklin County Health Department and Mercy Hospital Washington to determine if the city remains in the “red zone” or has moved to the “yellow zone.”

These determinations will be made every Monday, starting Nov. 30.

Skornia said the city’s current average of new cases per capita is 79.57. The number of hospitalizations for COVID-19 over the past two weeks was 26.36 hospital beds compared to the previous two weeks, which had 13.5 beds in use by COVID-19 patients.

The death rate for COVID-19 rose to 75 after 18 deaths were reported by the county health department last week.

“Right now, for this week, all three metrics were in red. What we will look at on Monday is did two of those, and it can be any combination of the three, come down,” Skornia said.

How Will It Be Enforced?

Individuals who violate the Washington ordinance and who are convicted of their violation could be sentenced to pay a $15 fine. Businesses could be ordered to pay a $100 fine, though Washington Police Chief Ed Menefee and Lamb agreed that it is unlikely that a business or individual will be fined.

“Our idea is always to educate, educate, educate with regards to this ordinance,” Lamb said. “For example, if we hear a complaint that masks are not being worn in certain businesses then our first idea is to call the manager and to indicate to them that we have received a complaint. Then we are going to talk to them about making sure that they have enough masks or if there is something that they need help with in regard to enforcing this ordinance, whether it is signs or something else.”

He added, “The good news is that most of the time we do get a pretty good response with regard to people following the ordinance.”

If residents see a business or individual not in compliance with the ordinance, they are encouraged to file a complaint by email at mask@washmo.gov or by phone at 636-390-1060. Complaints will be reviewed daily by Skornia.

Complaints will be turned over to the county health department, though there was some question from city leaders, including City Attorney Mark Piontek, if the county health department had the manpower to conduct contact tracing efforts and to investigate mask violation complaints.

Lamb said the approach the city is taking on enforcing its mask ordinance is a similar approach to the one taken in the early days of enforcing its ban on smoking in public places.

“There was an outcry at that time, especially from bars and restaurants and some of our business industries, but over time that changed and now people see the smoking ban as a step toward public health,” Lamb said. 

Piontek said during his tenure as the city’s legal counsel he did not receive any notifications of tickets, claims or violations for prosecution for the smoking ban.

City Leaders React

Obermark, who represents the portion of the city that encompasses Mercy Hospital Washington’s main campus, said he believes the mask mandate is the city’s best chance to “flatten the curve.”

“It doesn’t make it go away and I understand that,” Obermark said. “I want to get back to normal just as much as everybody else does, and if having to wear a mask helps us do that and maybe saves someone else’s life then it is worth it. People my age get (COVID-19) and maybe we are sick for four or five days, but for others it is more serious. I’d rather wear a mask and maybe help someone else not get sick.”

Wessels, who represents the city’s southeastern region, said he hopes the implementation of the mask mandate prevents another shutdown. He also liked how the city was measuring its progress using the metrics.

“I don’t want to go to another shutdown. And so to me, to do something like this, I think is a way to measure — and it may not be the best way — but at least it is something that we can measure.”

Patke, who represents the southwestern portion of the city, including west of St. Francis Borgia Cemetery, and south of Highway 100, said he voted against the proposed ordinance for two reasons, including the redundancy of a citywide mask mandate when a countywide mask mandate is already in effect and the use of the metrics.

“The county passed it, so we have to abide by that.  ... From a city of Washington standpoint, I feel we should abide by the county’s rules without replicating them,” Patke said.

Prior to the vote, he said he believes the city should wait until December to see if the county renews or ends its countywide mask mandate.

“My thought process is that the county will revisit it in December to see if it needs to be extended. If they don’t, then we, the city of Washington, can make a decision then to put our metrics into place.”

Hidritch said his opposition to the mask mandate reflects his constituents’ views.

“I’ve returned 350 to 400 emails. I returned every one of them. The people tell me — 67 percent of those people — tell me that they don’t want (a mask mandate),” said Hidritch, who noted this was in stark contrast to his experience serving as a city council member during the debate over a no smoking ban in public. During that debate, Hidritch said, he received overwhelming messages from people who supported the ban.

“I feel we as elected officials should be the voice of our constituents. That’s why we were put here into this position. That’s why we were voted to sit in the seat right here. So to go against what our constituents want — that’s Washington, D.C., that’s not Wash, Mo.”

Following the meeting, Lucy said she felt good about the city’s decision to implement its own mask requirement.

“Obviously, what we are doing right now, with a resolution encouraging mask wearing, is not working as our numbers are continuing to rise,” Lucy said. “I think it is a good thing to have the mask ordinance, and I am grateful to the county for putting it into place. I think our concern over here in Washington was the fact that we don’t want to see the mask ordinance tied to so many days, but rather to something that would show results before it is rescinded,” Lucy said.