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Residents, Shawnee City Commission mull pros, cons of mask mandate

By Vicky O. Misa | Vicky.misa@news-star.com | (405) 214-3962 | Twitter: @Vicky_NewsStar

Easily the hottest topic of Monday night's Shawnee City Commission meeting was the same as it has been everywhere for months — COVID-19.

Time was allotted for discussion-only among commissioners, and several residents voiced their opinions during citizen participation. A consistent rise in COVID-19 cases in the area was cause for the added agenda item — and discussion was specifically centered around officials potentially enacting a mask mandate.

Several residents brought up concerns with being forced to wear face coverings in public, citing health and disability issues, restricting constitutional freedom and HIPAA violations, as well as wondering how such a mandate could be enforced.

Struggling with a hearing problem, LaDonna Bryce shared with the board the recent mask-wearing has added difficulties for her in trying to communicate.

“I am completely deaf in my right ear,” she said. “When everyone has a mask on it impedes my ability to hear them.”

Their voices are muffled and it's distorted, she explained.

Bryce said, she has no problem with businesses wanting to have a mask policy.

“I'm all for that because I have my own business, as well; I can do that,” she said. But that also gives me the opportunity and the choice to say I don't want to go in there.”

She said she understands that people say that masks save lives and she has her own opinions on the matter.

“I am asking that when this commission is making that decision, that you take into consideration the people that are in this community that not only have hearing issues, but also victims of assault,” she said. “Anything that covers their face is a trigger.”

Next, resident Carol Tomlinson said the community needs to think about what scientists are saying.

“We need to consider what is best for Shawnee,” she said. “I would like to beg you to formulate some plan for stopping the spread of COVID-19 to save lives in Shawnee.”

She said residents need the commission's guidance in making this community a place to wear face masks in public, especially if they are inside.

“I'm begging you to truly consider this; read up on all the facts before you make any decisions to pass on it,” she said.

Shane Jett said he stepped forward to speak on behalf of those who would like to have the freedom to choose whether to take the recommendations of scientists and healthcare professionals to wear a mask or not.

“I'd like to encourage the elected officials to decide it on the side of common sense and allow your citizens who had the good sense to elect you to also make the decisions about what's best for their health,” he said. “I think you'll find a lot of backlash, a lot of frustrations.”

He said there's clearly a division on the subject even within the science community and the medical community.

“It depends on who you follow, on who you listen to, who you read,” he said. “But I think our citizens are smart enough to do the reading for themselves and to listen to experts and decide what is in the best interest of their handling of their health.”

Just provide information and recommendations, he said.

“When we overstep and mandate I think that we have repercussions that fall inside of constitutional freedom,” he said. “I'm here to urge caution; let us make our decisions on what's best for our families.”

Disabled veteran Devra Waterman said she can't wear a mask due to an anxiety disorder.

“You can't look at me and tell I'm disabled,” she said. I don't want to have to go through having to try to describe this, which is a HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) violation anyway.” She said just discussing the issues behind her anxiety brings that anxiety up.

She said what's most disturbing is putting local police officers in an impossible position.

“They can't confront a person; they can't make them prove their disability,” she said. “They can't prove the exemptions.”

She said she fought for this country for the freedom to make her own health choices, to be a responsible citizen, to know what's best for her and her family.

“I am a highly-educated health professional — I am not a doctor, but I am educated,” she said. “I want the freedom to continue making those choices for myself.” She said she read a handful of scientific peer-review journal studies that said masks really don't do a whole lot.

“We've also had problems with cloth masks,” she said. “I know two people that have had seizures that were brought on by wearing the masks.”

There have been other issues with bacteria and mold, she said, where people were getting it in their lungs. “These are not necessarily the best things and everybody needs to individually decide what's going to be the best for them,” she said. “I support businesses making those choices for themselves ... That's capitalism, and you have a right to decide what goes on in your businesses.”

She said she does have a problem with a legislative body trying to decide whether or not she can breathe fresh air when she's out walking around.

Other residents also echoed points that had been brought before the board.

Commissioner discussion

Ward 2 Shawnee City Commissioner Bob Weaver said the board has a responsibility to try and protect as many people as possible.

“This discussion is to try to come up with some parameters of whether we mandate masks — and if we do, what the guidelines would be for those and what the consequences will be,” he said.

Ward 3 Shawnee City Commissioner Travis Flood said,

“There's a line between being safe and protecting the people I love and also declaring what other people should or should not do.”

He said he's glad the community is having this discussion.

“I think it's important that we do our best to hear as many citizens as we can,” he said.

It's also important to be intentional about trying our best to make a good decision, he said, not only for the people that want to wear masks, but people that are saying they have a strict discomfort or disability.

“What would that do with our police force, which is already tasked with a lot of things,” he said. “Whatever we put in effect we've got to make sure we can back it up — and that's a pretty significant task.”

Ward 4 Shawnee City Commissioner Darren Rutherford

said he doesn't want to see Oklahoma — or Shawnee — shut back down.

“Whether we make it mandatory or not, I think it's for the protection of others,” he said. “This isn't helping me, it's helping whoever is in front of me.”

He said he's been contacted by a couple school administrators who have asked the city to do something.

“They felt like it would give them the opportunity for getting the kids in school and keeping them in school,” he said. “They are worried that they're not going to be able to keep them in school if we change colors (referring to the state Health Department alert system's color-coded risk phases for each county), and they have to leave.”

He said he believes the community is in a good place right now.

“Do we want to wait and see if it gets worse and then try it or do we want to try to help prevent (it) going further and try to help the schools be able to keep kids in schools?” he asked. “There would have to be rules, of course, on age and disabilities, and all of those things would need to be taken into consideration. It may not be possible.”

He said he has had emails from people adamantly against because they didn't want to give up freedoms and (due to) disabilities.

“Businesses people have contacted me are in favor of it,” he said. “I think they're scared to make it mandatory in their business when their competitors are not. So, if we, as a city, do that for them, we become the bad guys and they are not. They are looking to us to make a decision, which is tough either way.”

Ward 5 Shawnee City Commissioner Mark Sehorn said he's on the fence.

“No doubt it's safe for the individual in front of us; it's not really helping us wearing the mask,” he said. “But from the legal ramifications … do we want to stick with the state statutes or do we want to take it on ourselves to do it? It's a hard call.”

Everybody wants their freedoms, but the other side of that is we don't want to go backwards like Texas and some of the other states that are just overrun, he said. “I think we need some kind of parameters.”

At what point do we require it? He asked.

“Some kind of guidelines need to be set forth if we're going to do it,” he said. “A lot of the bigger businesses have opted to do it — Walmart, you know all the big national chains, but they're kind of doing it corporate-wide because they have some really infected areas where they shouldn't have any choice but to do it; they are trying to hedge it off.”

Even locally there are issues with (the) supplies chain he said.

“You know manufacturers shut down products and it's a concern now because everybody's inventory levels are low,” he said. “I'm sure anybody's businesses seeing that chain (as) being an issue where they had to shut down again and then it's really an issue because you're 90- or 100-day supply you normally have is 30 days now.”

Ward 6 Shawnee City Commissioner Ben Salter said, “When you look at our county numbers, we have doubled in cases in 20 days. (It was) 105 on July 1 and we have 211 (Monday).”

He said he had spoken with a person last week that told him they are asymptomatic — they tested positive — but were not going to quarantine themselves, but instead continue to do their daily work.

“I think that's what we need to look at,” he said. “There may be other attitudes like that in Shawnee.”

He said he doesn't want to see businesses shut down.

“I think that's why a lot of the businesses are going to face coverings,” he said, “because they don't want to shut down.”

Mayor Ed Bolt agreed the situation is bad, it seems to be getting worse here in Oklahoma, he said.

“Our numbers are consistently picking up and that is concerning,” he said. “The thing I hear over and over is, 'we would gladly have you do a mandate on masks so hopefully we won't have to shut down again'.”

A lot of businesses are saying if they have to shut down again they will probably not reopen, he explained. “There are lots that are just kind of hanging there by a thread,” he said. “That's a tough, tough situation.”

He said he understand there are people with health concerns and if they wear a mask it can be a problem.

“I can't help but think there's allowances we can devise to take care of that,” he said. “We want to take care of everybody if we can; I know that's not possible and we can't come up with any kind of solution that's going to make everybody happy.”

He said he has gotten lots of messages advocating both ways on the topic

“There's probably been more for us enacting some sort of mandate versus against,” he said, “but still there's been folks that have been asking not to vote for that.” No matter which way the board goes it's going to make some people angry, he said.

As far as moving forward, he said the board could have something to consider at the next meeting (in two weeks), or it could have a special call meeting.

Currently, the area's largest employer, Citizen Potawatomi Nation has enacted a mask requirement.

As of 11 a.m. Tuesday, Shawnee had a reported 44 active cases, from a total of 146 cases, five deaths and 97 recoveries. Pottawatomie County had a reported 64 active cases, from a total of 211 cases, five deaths and 142 recoveries.

Watch for updates.