By Adam Strunk
North Newton will become the first community in Harvey County to mandate residents wear masks in public and within businesses.
The council voted 5-0 Monday night to pass a mask mandate.
“It is very similar to the one that was passed by the City of Wichita,” City Attorney Greg Nye said.
The ordinance is also similar to the one the Newton City Council did not pass.
The ordinance requires people to wear masks in public spaces when they are unable to consistently space more than six feet from others. That ordinance would be extended to Bethel campus but not private homes, offices, or churches.
People are also required to wear masks indoors in businesses. Businesses are required to have employees wear masks in the presence of customers, food, or in areas they cannot space by more than six feet.
There’s a large amount of exemptions for people, including children under five and people with a disability or medical or mental health condition where a face mask would obstruct their breathing.
There are also exemptions for people who are 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. Those violating the ordinance will be punished by civil fines of $25 on first conviction, $50 on second conviction and $100 on the third conviction.
A number of community members spoke on the issue. Phil Kliewer said he agreed with the measure, but he was curious who would enforce the ordinance.
Nye said it would be the city and noted the goal of the ordinance was to educate and encourage masks in public, not hand out tickets.
Monty Graber asked the council to give police officers homemade masks to give to citizens seen not wearing masks and not to give out tickets on the first time. He said he was happy that he lived in such a progressive community when the issue of wearing masks has become so polarized in the rest of the area.
“We’ll probably go one or two or three miles to offer masks in lieu of a punitive punishment,” Mayor Ron Braun said.
Braun continued to say that the ordinance will be discretionary and the city is looking to hand out masks and educate.
Council members said the majority of communications they received were positive and supportive of the ordinance.
Kurt Friesen asked about its impact on law enforcement.
North Newton Police Chief Randy Jordan said there likely would be people calling 911 for mask enforcement.
He said he did talk to the 911 emergency management communications director as he had concerns about it and that county emergency communications was short on staff.
Gregg Dick suggested to just have North Newton residents call the city office if they noted issues or violations.
The ordinance was ammended to have residents contact the city office at (316) 283-7633 to report complaints.
Dick said he didn’t expect there to be large issues.
Jordan said this would be controversial for law enforcement to enforce, and he said that enforcing it will criminalize one side of a public debate and that neither side was more right.
Nye responded that the ordinance doesn’t create a crime but an infraction.
“What’s the difference?” Jordan said.
“Well, you cannot be arrested nor go to jail,” Nye said about the ordinance. “This is an infraction; this is not a crime.”
Braun said if he speeds on a county road, he is at the officer’s discretion for a ticket or a warning.
He said police officers use discretion, they use common sense, and he trusted them to make such decisions.
Braun gave Jordan more time to respond.
Jordan said that enforcing the ordinance would create division within the community.
“If people get angry and upset about how it’s enforced, all I ask is they send their anger toward me specifically as the chief,” he said.
He then said police officers have been shot at and spit on, and he doesn’t want his officers taking the front end of criticism on how it is enforced.
Braun said the council bears the weight of the decision, and Jordan should know their support is with him.
The ordinance passed 5-0.
“It’s hard work; none of us want to do this normally, but we’re finding the more we do it, we’re finding the benefits of more safety and health for all of us,” he said.
The ordinance becomes active with its publication in Harvey County Now. It will sunset later in August. We’ll get the exact date when the ordinance becomes available to us Tuesday morning.