Photo: Pictured above, Gadsden City Council President Dr. Cynthia Toles addresses the public during a press conference on July 9 concerning wearing face masks throughout the city. (Katie Bohannon/Messenger)
By Katie Bohannon, News Editor
Governor Kay Ivey implemented a statewide face mask requirement on Thursday, July 16 at 5 p.m. The mask directive will expire July 31.
The amendment to the Safer at Home Order states, “each person shall wear a mask or other facial covering that covers his or her nostrils and mouth at all times when within six feet of a person from another household in any of the following places: an indoor space open to the general public, a vehicle operated by a transportation service or an outdoor public space where 10 or more people are gathered.”
However, the face mask requirement is subject to exceptions that fall under practical necessity, exercise, effective communication, facilitating constitutionally protected activity and essential job functions. Some of these exceptions include individuals who are consuming food and drink or seated at a restaurant to eat or drink, individuals actively engaged in exercise in a gym or other athletic facility (if he or she maintains social distancing requirements) and persons receiving medical treatment or undergoing a medical procedure.
Prior to Ivey’s statewide order, the Gadsden City Council was considering implementing legislation requiring face mask coverings to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Though the possibility of an ordinance mandating masks was discussed in a press conference on July 9 and in pre-council work session July 14, the council was alternately considering a resolution to encourage residents to protect others and themselves.
During the press conference last Thursday, Gadsden city officials and healthcare professionals addressed the public with updates concerning the coronavirus. Though at that time no face mask ordinance had been drafted, an ordinance was presented for discussion at Tuesday’s pre-council work session.
The ordinance would have mandated wearing a mask inside all public buildings, with violations resulting in a $25 fine. However, exceptions within the ordinance generated speculation regarding enforcement.
Councilman Jason Wilson emphasized numerous exceptions to the ordinance, including situations like eating and drinking, medical examinations, receiving a haircut and places like indoor athletic facilities and gyms. Wilson noted that schools were carved out of the ordinance altogether.
City attorney Lee Roberts spoke at length with Gadsden City School Board attorney Christie Knowles about the laws applying to schools and hardships circulating around the ordinance. Children five years old and under were excluded from the ordinance, but questions of juvenile charges surfaced. In addition, training police officers on the proper response to the ordinance was brought up during the session.
“The bottom line is that enforceability is difficult, if not impossible,” said Councilman Deverick Williams. “Everybody up here wants a mask ordinance that means something. Everybody up here wants people to wear a mask. I don’t want to put our police officers in a position where they’re trying to enforce something that they really haven’t been adequately trained on. Their job is tough enough as it is. Now, we’re sending them out there to write tickets and criminalize activity that we don’t really want to criminalize…we just want people to comply.”
Due to the ordinance’s symbolic nature, the possibility of changing the ordinance to a resolution without a fine arose. All council members agreed that the ordinance is a symbolic effort to encourage residents to wear face coverings out of consideration for the health of those around them, as well as their own safety.
“As a public safety official, that’s what I’m all about,” said Councilman Thomas Worthy, an advocate for the face mask ordinance. “[I served] 26 years as a police officer. It’s about protecting people that couldn’t protect themselves. [I served] 22 years in the military. It’s about protecting this country. We’ve asked every generation to sacrifice. It’s not for you, it’s to keep [you] from giving [the virus] to somebody else. We’re not taking your rights away. We’re trying to keep you alive.”
For more information on Alabama’s statewide mask requirement, visit https://governor.alabama.gov/newsroom/2020/07/governor-ivey-issues-amended-safer-at-home-order-4/.