Kent City Council passes mandatory mask ordinance

Less than two hours after Gov. Mike DeWine urged Ohio residents to wear masks while in public but didn’t require it, Kent City Council passed its own mandatory mask ordinance. 

Face masks must be worn in indoor and outdoor areas accessible to the general public within city limits, effective immediately. The ordinance was written by Kent Law Director Hope Jones and Kent City Health Commissioner Joan Seidel and mirrors ordinances in other cities that have mask policies already in place. 

“I don’t think this is a newsflash to anybody,” City Manager Dave Ruller said about the ordinance. “The discussion of masking, obviously it’s been a national issue, and it’s become more and more local, unfortunately. I love Joan, but she keeps sending me updates that show numbers rising, even in Portage County and even in Kent. The virus has not decided to just take a vacation in the summer.” 

Portage County has had 518 confirmed cases of COVID-19, 101 hospitalizations and 60 deaths, according to the Ohio Department of Health. Currently, Ohio follows a county-by-county color-coded warning system. The system allows the state to implement closures or take measures depending on the severity of coronavirus cases locally. If a county turns red, which would be at Level 3, masks become mandatory. Portage County is currently orange, or Level 2, which means it has increased exposure and spread, but not at the “very high” quantities related to Level 3. 

“Joan kept saying, she was taking bets all week, she’s like, ‘Well, the way numbers are going, it may not matter what the council thinks, we may be red before we get to Wednesday night,’” Ruller said during the meeting. “The good news is, we’re not red, but we certainly aren’t out of the woods.”  

When it comes to enforcement of the ordinance, Seidel and the health department don’t have the authority to issue tickets, but they plan on following up with those reported to be not wearing a mask. 

“There’s a hotline that will be set up, there will be means through the website to get concerns to the health department so we can follow up and talk to those individuals about what barriers they might be facing in terms of wearing a mask,” Seidel said. “We don’t have police authority. I don’t have a ticket book that I can write tickets. Our authority is basically over businesses and operations that are licensed. Our authority comes with the ability to either provide a license or revoke a license.” 

They admit it will be difficult to contact people if they do not get the report quickly, and impossible to do so if they do not have the name of the individual. 

“Some of it’s going to be time sensitive,” Seidel said. “So if someone says, ‘Oh, I was in downtown Kent on Friday night and I saw three people and here are their names and they didn’t have on masks,’ when I get that complaint on Monday morning it’s going to be a little bit more difficult. I won’t be able to address it on the spot. But as long as I had contact information we could follow up with the individuals.” 

Kent Mayor Jerry Fiala talked about how his wife, who has asthma, finds some masks difficult to wear, but others work better for her and she takes extra precautions when it comes to who she is around.   

“I think it is up to the individual what they can wear, and if it’s the minimum, they still are in to what we’re after as a group,” Fiala said. “When we lower the chances of getting this virus, we’re more healthy and safe as a community, and when that happens our businesses are going to be able to stay open. And I’ve talked to some of the businesses downtown and they’re very concerned but they’ve accepted the idea that masks are going to keep them open.” 

Fiala wasn’t the only person in the meeting to point to the mask ordinance as a way to help keep Kent businesses open. 

“I am trying to really balance the needs of the businesses as well, and I’m going to try and keep them open,” said Heidi Shaffer, the Ward 5 council member. “And I realize that wearing a mask is key to them staying open, and not everyone going into lockdown.”

Gwen Rosenberg, owner of the downtown business Popped! and a council member at large, also supports the ordinance. She heard from people that a mask ordinance would help them feel safer if they came downtown, and she told her employees a mask ordinance will probably be inevitable. 

“Employees are not going to be confronting customers,” Rosenberg said, about customers who come into her store without a mask. “We aren’t looking to cause a fight or anything like that. We are going to rely on residents to understand that we are in an unprecedented global pandemic and the governor has told us to wear masks to protect one another. Someone wants to march in and make a total show and be a big jerk, well that’s their prerogative to do so. We’re probably just going to get them served and get them out as fast as we can.”

Ward 4 Council Member John Kuhar wears a mask and follows social distancing protocols, but he abstained from voting on the ordinance. 

“I will abstain from the vote, basically because I don’t know if the government should tell people what to do with their own body,” Kuhar said. “But I think it’s a good ordinance, I already follow the ordinance that’s not written.”

Council Member At Large Roger Sidoti said a mask ordinance is the best option to keep the town safe and prevent a lockdown. 

“Whether it’s the right course or the wrong course it is the course that seems to have the best benefit to keep our people safe, and that’s what we’re supposed to be doing,” Sidoti said. “The second piece is that businesses, if we do not stop this at the local level, eventually our businesses are going to be forced with a forced closedown by the governor because there won’t be any other option.”

This article was produced through a reporting partnership with the Collaborative News Lab @ Kent State University.