City to consider mask mandate extension

JAMES BEATY | Staff photoMayor John Browne and the city council are set to consider extending the mandate requiring the wearing of masks or other facial coverings, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, when city councilors meet Nov. 24 in the Clark Bass Building on the McAlester Campus of Eastern Oklahoma State College.

City councilors passed a measure on a 5-to-2 vote Tuesday night to extend a city ordinance requiring the wearing of masks or other protective facial coverings in public places in McAlester — but it's not going into effect for 30 days.

That's because a companion measure to declare it an emergency so it would take effect immediately failed to meet the five-vote threshold required for emergency declarations. It fell short by a 4-3 vote. Without an emergency declaration, McAlester city ordinances do not go into effect until 30 days after passage.

With the city's current mask mandate set to expire Nov. 30, City Attorney Joe Ervin said after the meeting it's his interpretation that the 30 day countdown to the new mask mandate begins Nov. 25 — the day following the Nov. 24 meeting when the measure passed. The 30-day countdown from Nov. 25 would conclude on Dec. 24, Christmas Eve.

With the city's current mask mandate set to remain in place until its Nov. 30 expiration date — and the new one is not set to go into effect until 30 days following the Nov. 24 meeting — the city will now have 24 days between the expiration of the current mask mandate and the implementation of the new one.

McAlester Mayor John Browne had asked the council to approve the masked mandate extension Tuesday night — but he also asked for the emergency declaration so the new mandate would go into effect before the current one expires.

Following the failure to pass the emergency declaration, he spoke from the podium to deliver a personal message to McAlester residents.

"I want to apologize to the city of McAlester," Browne said. "We have failed you tonight." Browne noted there are going to be 24 days without a mask ordinance in effect. That makes no sense, the mayor added.

Joining Browne to vote "yes" in favor of extending the face mask mandate were Cully Stevens, Ward 2; James Brown, Ward 4; Billy Jack Boatright, Ward 5, and Zach Prichard, Ward 6.

Voting "no" against extending the face mask mandate were Weldon Smith, Ward 1, and Steve Cox, Ward 3.

With the motion to extend the mask ordinance passing by a 5-2 margin, it initially appeared there might be enough support to reach the five-vote threshold required for the emergency declaration so the mask extension would take effect immediately.

However, when the motion to declare the matter an emergency came up for a vote, Boatright joined Cox and Smith in voting "no." Even though there were four councilors in support of passing the measure and three against it, the emergency declaration fell a vote short of the five-vote threshold required for passage.

Before the vote, Mayor Browne quoted from a study conducted between Aug. 1 and Nov. 10 showing cities in Oklahoma with a mask mandate saw a 36% increase in COVID cases during that time period, while those without a mask mandate showed a 109% increase.

Browne read results of a study conducted by former Mayor Steve Harrison that Browne said showed Pittsburg County doing better than neighboring counties in slowing the spread of COVID.

Browne also said a spokesman from the McAlester Regional Health Center asked the city to keep its mask mandate in place.

The Oklahoma State Department of Health reported Tuesday there have been 180,610 cases of COVID-19 in Oklahoma, with 15 additional deaths to report. OSDH said there have been a total of 1,664 total deaths from COVID-19 in the state.

City councilors took the vote at a new meeting location. They previously agreed to move their meetings to the Clark Bass Room on the McAlester Campus of Eastern Oklahoma State College.

Councilors moved the meeting after the Oklahoma State Legislature did not extend a special measure put into effect because of COVID-19 that had allowed members of public bodies to attend public meetings through an audio or video connection.

The usual meeting room in the Council Chambers at City Hall is much smaller than the Clark Bass Room and would not have allowed for social distancing if all seven members of the city council attended the meeting in-person. It also would not have allowed for social distancing among the public if very many attended a council meeting at the same time.

Provisions in the city's new protective face covering ordinance does not have a penalty for individuals who violate the mask mandate, but it keeps intact a provision that those who allow an individual to enter their place of public setting or accommodation to be fined up to $100 for each offense.

The ordinance requires the use of protective face coverings in McAlester in places of public accommodation, public service areas or public settings where social distancing of at least six feet is not being conducted.

A face covering is defined as a covering, or mask, that fully covers a person's nose and mouth, including, but not limited to, cloth face masks, towels, scarves, and bandannas as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com.

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