Masks to be recommended, not required in Newton

The Newton City Commission declined to pass an ordinance requiring masks in public and in businesses within the city limits.

Instead, it will vote at its next meeting on a resolution that recommends masks but would not enforce such a rule.

“If we’re not for being forced to wear masks, then show a little respect and wear a mask where it’s applicable,” Commissioner Rod Kreie said. “I think we should first try to be good citizens and wear a mask where it’s applicable. I’m for the resolution. I’m asking people to show humanity and do the right thing.”

The meeting lasted more than two hours with discussion of a possible ordinance or resolution, its impact on the city and at least 26 members of the public addressing the commission. Previously, Harvey County rejected upholding an executive order requiring masks in the state, prompting the City of Newton to look at the possibility of a local ordinance requiring masks. The Cities of Wichita, Salina and Winfield, as well as Johnson, Shawnee and Douglas Counties, have all recently adopted mask requirements.

The local ordinance in question Tuesday would have required masks to be worn in indoor or outdoor public spaces where a distancing of six feet cannot be maintained at all times.

It would have required those going into businesses to wear masks inside. Business employees would have to wear masks when in contact with the public, food, or in an enclosed area where they could not keep six feet of distance.

The ordinance exempted children under five from the rule as well as a person with a disability or medical or mental health condition where a face mask would obstruct their breathing.

It also exempted people who are communicating with the hearing impaired as well as people engaged in athletics where spacing is possible and court proceedings. People in a restaurant are exempted from wearing a mask when in the process of eating and drinking, as long as they’re distanced six feet from other parties.

Enforcement would have functioned through municipal courts, similar to parking and speeding tickets. First violation would include a $25 fine that would scale up to $50 and $100 on second and third violations.

Police Chief Craig Dunlavy spoke on the ability of his department to enforce the ordinance. He said he anticipated an ordinance resulting in a lot of calls for his department.

“I would prefer we find masks that my officers can hand out in lieu of giving tickets,” he said.

He added that the department would enforce the ordinance.

“There are folks that will demand us to enforce these rules,” he said. “We’re going to respond, but it may not be at the highest priority that we respond to to other actions.”

During the public hearing portion of the meeting, 26 people spoke, with 13 in favor of an ordinance or resolution, 11 against and two neutral.

Those in favor included Val Gleason, CEO of Newton Medical Center; Pam Stevens, director of the Newton Chamber; Jennifer Koontz, president of the Harvey County Medical Society; and Lynette Reddington, director of the Harvey County Health Department.

Stephanie Gibson, a doctor at Newton Medical Center, spoke on her own behalf and said the adoption of masks would save lives and that was her main concern.

“We will all do our best,” she said of medical staff. “There’s a limited number of rooms, supplies and PPE,” she noted, adding that hospitals in areas of high infection are again becoming stressed. “If we wait ’til the hospital becomes overwhelmed, it’s going to be too late.”

Tami Lakey said she was a strong supporter of masks, as they have given out more than 2,000 at Norm’s Coffee Bar, which she owns. However, she said she was asking the city to, whatever it does, not put the enforcement of the ordinance strictly on business shoulders.

Eleven spoke against the idea. Those included. Lance Gormley, Republican candidate for the 72nd State House District, who spoke against masks, saying that people’s health was their personal responsibility.

Melody Christin said she really struggled with the idea of making all people wear masks. She said she has a hearing impairment, and masks make it difficult for her to participate in activities like church or to communicate with other people by reading their lips. She also said the lock down for COVID-19 represented a hard time for her family.
“Every time we put on a mask it feels like a chain and feels like we’re going to quarantine,” she said.

She added that she’d wear a mask if asked to out of respect to others but would prefer not to be required to.

“We prefer not to criminalized for not wearing a mask,” she said.

Following, commissioners spoke their piece.

Mayor Leroy Koehn said he wasn’t for an ordinance, as it would put more burden on the police department. He also noted that, should they write a ticket to someone of a different skin color, it might open up the department to accusations of discrimination.

He did say, however, he supported a resolution strongly encouraging all to wear masks.

“I think it’s prudent,” he said. “We can not afford to shut down again. We cannot do that for a variety of reasons.”

Koehn also asked that the school system be exempted from the Newton resolution, as they should be allowed to come up with their own rules.

Commissioner Kathy Valentine said she received many emails in favor of a mask requirement, but few talked about enforcement. She said she was concerned about allocating additional police forces to enforce the ordinance. She said she didn’t think the entire medical community was on the same page on masks. She asked how many people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in Harvey County.

She was told a case came in during the last few days.

She said that, in the case of a resolution, she’d like to see churches also exempted.

Kreie said he thought it was important for the community to remember its a community.

“In my mind, it’s important for me that we lead by example and show leadership instead of mandates,” he said, noting he would wear a mask.

He said he wears a mask to be respectful because that’s how he grew up, and that’s how his parents. taught him.

Vice Mayor Rich Stinnett was the lone commissioner to advocate for the ordinance.

He noted that there was a lag time between deaths and diagnoses and recent case increases concerned him. The U.S., as well as Kansas and neighboring counties are currently seeing a spike in COVID-19 cases.

Stinnett also brought up that not just mortality but morbidity and lasting injury presented a risk with a COVID-19 outbreak.

Commissioner Clint McBroom brought up a number of problems he had with mask requirements. He said a question people weren’t discussing was the cost of masks. He said a disposable mask costing 85 cents, replaced three times a day, translated to $600-plus for a family the size of his during the duration of the ordinance. He said people would be fined for being too poor to afford a mask.

He said some people would leave Newton to buy other items if Harvey County required masks. He also said, in some cases, people have conditions that prevent them from wearing a mask or cause anxiety when they do. He said he had two sons diagnosed with autism, and one of his sons had a panic attack at Boy Scouts when he was forced to wear a mask in Wichita.

McBroom made a motion to table the issue and reject both the ordinance and resolution. The motion died for lack of a second.

Stinnett made motions to pass a tweaked ordinance requiring masks. The motion failed for lack of second.

Kreie made a motion to pass a resolution recommending masks. The resolution includes the same language as the ordinance but lacks any method of enforcement. Following discussion, staff asked for time to add in requested exemptions for schools and churches.

The motion to direct staff to prepare a final ordinance for voting on at the upcoming city commission meeting was passed 4-1, with McBroom voting against.

McBroom said he was disappointed his family could be shamed in public for not having a mask on.

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