Seward Council passes mask ordinance

Face coverings required in public as of Saturday morning

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Seward City Council members passed an ordinance requiring masks be worn in public within city limits at a special meeting Dec. 3. Ordinance No. 2020-33 was an amended version of the one presented during the regularly scheduled council meeting on Tuesday night. That ordinance will take effect 10 a.m. on Saturday and sunset Jan. 6, the day after the council's regularly scheduled Jan. 5 meeting. At that point the council can decide whether to extend the ordinance or not.

The special meeting began with council members waiving the statutory rule requiring three readings on an item by unanimous vote. That allowed the ordinance to be considered upon second reading. After that came discussion regarding the ordinance, which ultimately included multiple amendment votes before the ordinance itself passed.

Face coverings are defined as a covering which, when worn properly, covers the nose and mouth completely. That can include paper or disposable face masks, a cloth face mask, scarf, bandana, neck gaiter or religious face covering. Masks that incorporate a valve designed to facilitate easy exhaling, mesh masks, or masks with openings, holes, visible gaps in the design or vents are deemed not sufficient because they allow exhaled droplets into the air.

Premises open to the public are broadly defined by the ordinance. It applies to entities where employees works such as the private sector, public sector, non-profit, regular commercial or business establishments, private clubs, religious centers or buildings, public transportation and any place which is generally open to the public.

Businesses in public areas must display signs that state the requirement of face coverings.

The ordinance applies to those age 5 and older.

Multiple exceptions were defined. Exceptions include courts of law, public utilities or federal, state, county or city operations; medical providers, facilities or pharmacies; congregating living centers or facilities; group homes and residential drug and/or mental health treatment facilities; shelters; and residential dwelling units. Federal and state activities are also exempted so as to not prohibit or restrict activities by officials. Individuals at their workplaces are exempt when a face covering would create a job hazard. Those who work alone or can maintain six feet of social distancing are also exempt. Those officiating religious services are also exempt, as are those communicating with those who are deaf or hard of hearing. Those swimming or showering in public spaces are also exempt. Public safety workers such as fire fighters, law enforcement or emergency personnel are also exempt when a face covering would seriously interfere with their performance or responsibilities. Those participating in athletic competitions or practices directly are exempted. Students of public or parochial schools, while on school premises, are designated exempt but must follow the school's guidelines.

Face coverings are also not required if a person is seeking governmental services, seated at a bar or restaurant to eat or drink, engaged in an occupation preventing wearing a face covering, obtaining goods or services that require temporary removal, asked to verify identity or if the person has a medical condition that makes them unable to wear a face covering.

Punishment in the ordinance was amended from its original amount to a $50 fine. That does not include court fees for payment, which City Attorney Kelly Hoffschneider said amount to $49 in Seward County. The council determined the fine amount through a compromise of not causing overwhelming financial burden on those who violate the ordinance but also was a sufficient amount to keep community members from essentially throwing money at non-compliance.

Seward Mayor Josh Eickmeier and City Administrator Greg Butcher explained the enforcement scenario. A complaint would have to be filed. Members of the Seward Police Department would be called to investigate. They would inform the subject of the complaint about the ordinance. If that person were to relent, they would be subject to a fine. And if that person still refuses to leave, they could be arrested for trespassing and subject to further fines.

Eickmeier and Butcher both told the council that there won't be patrolling and that the focus of enforcement is on education.

Subjects of complaints could also cite medical reasons and religious beliefs. The subject of a complaint would be exempt for telling an officer they can't wear a mask for medical reasons or religious beliefs. One council member voiced her unease to that leniency, to which Butcher replied they'd rely on the honor code. He likened those issues to those who claim a service animal but do not need one – in that it does a disservice to those who do require those special accommodations.

The ordinance's purpose was stated to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus throughout Seward by requiring individuals wear facial coverings with exemptions, provide enforcement of violations and penalties and establish a sunset provision.

Council presented the authority to make such an ordinance to promote the public health and safety, as well as general interests and welfare of its citizens. Legislative findings state exposure to the novel coronavirus presents a potential risk of death or serious long-term disability. The wearing of face coverings by every individual while indoors in public places in city limits aims to reduce community transmission, resulting in fewer deaths, serious health complications and ease strain on hospitals and other medical offices and facilities.

Hundreds watched both Thursday’s and Tuesday's meetings. Public comment was only allowed Tuesday, and the council received over 160 emails on the topic since.

Council members wanted to extend the implementation of the ordinance until 10 a.m. on Dec. 5 to give the public time to learn and prepare.

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