Section: News

Council debates mask mandate

On Aug. 16, the Gambier Village Council passed an emergency ordinance mandating masks in public Village buildings. Despite 4-1 support from the Council’s members, the Knox County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) publicly announced he would not enforce the $25 fine for noncompliance with the mandate because it is a “non-criminal law,” Knox Pages reported.

“I have spoken with [Village Mayor Leeman Kessler] and informed him that deputies will not be citing anyone for violations. We will not put deputies in that situation,” KCSO wrote in a Facebook post on Aug. 17, one day after the Village Council passed the ordinance. “We have not enforced mask mandates in the past, and we will not enforce this mandate,” the post continued.

The ordinance will cover all public buildings in the Village until Oct. 4, at which point the Council will meet again to discuss either extending the ordinance, passing a new one or allowing it to expire. 

This mandate comes as COVID-19 cases continue to surge in Knox County, particularly with the spread of the delta variant. Knox County has a 94% community transmission rate, a 21% positivity rate and almost 37% of its intensive care unit beds occupied, according to the CDC. Only about 37% of Knox County has been at least partially vaccinated against COVID-19, lagging significantly behind the national average of 61%.

The Council brought the emergency ordinance to the table as community members expressed concerns after Mount Vernon City School District initially announced that it would not require students to wear masks at school — a decision that has since been reversed as they will require all students and staff to wear masks beginning today. Many parents at the meeting were concerned about the possibility of viral transmission in school, especially because children under 12 are not eligible for vaccination.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently recommend that individuals wear masks indoors in areas of substantial or high transmission, regardless of vaccination status. Following this guidance, the Ohio Department of Health, American Association of Pediatrics and Knox Public Health all recommend wearing masks indoors, as well. 

Following the recent surge in cases, Kenyon is also requiring all students, staff and faculty to wear masks in public indoor areas regardless of vaccination status. Kessler noted that Kenyon students’ return to campus, as well as the College’s decision to implement a mask mandate, also influenced the decision to bring a mask ordinance vote to the Council. 

“We saw the delta variant begin to rise up very quickly. We saw how Kenyon responded. We waited to see what Mount Vernon [City School District] decided. And now we realized if we are going to make a decision, if we want to do this expediently, now would be the time. Otherwise, we will need to wait until after the schools have already opened, and whatever happens happens,” Kessler said during the meeting. 

After Council members discussed the ordinance, the meeting opened up to community members to voice their opinions and express concerns. Most hotly contested among constituents was the issue of mandating masks for children in Wiggin Street Elementary School.

Throughout the contentious meeting, many community members argued against the mask mandate, citing opinions that masks are unhygienic and that it’s an individual choice to wear a mask. Many others indicated their support for the ordinance, expressing concerns about the greater risk the delta variant poses to young children. 

“With all due respect, we’re talking about [how] our kids might feel punished [for having to wear masks],” one community member said. “But my kid might be dead.”

Another parent, however, disagreed with her concerns. “I would feel totally differently if there wasn’t a 98% survival rate on this [virus],” she refuted.

“Is there really an acceptable rate of death for children when it’s preventable?” another mother responded. “I mean, what 2% of children would we like to see die?” 

The Gambier Village Council will hold their next meeting on Oct. 4 at the Gambier Community Center. 

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