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Decatur City Commission debates continuing face mask mandate, extends it to March 2

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Decatur City Commission debates continuing face mask mandate, extends it to March 2

Robert Mack wears a protective mask while he checks his cellphone on Sycamore Street in Downtown Decatur, April 26, 2020. When asked how he was getting along Mack quoted Franklin D. Roosevelt saying, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Photo by: Dean Hesse.

By Cathi Harris, contributor 

Decatur, GA — The Decatur City Commission voted Tuesday to extend its face-mask ordinance until a special called commission meeting on March 2.

But commissioners signaled they may be ready to lift the city’s mask mandate that’s been in place – with a brief interruption – since 2020.

City Manager Andrea Arnold originally presented a request for an extension of the mask mandate for an additional month, until March 21. But several commissioners expressed reservations about continuing it for such a long time.

Decatur’s ordinance requires residents and visitors to wear a mask while inside any business or store or public place where goods or services are sold. Employees of such businesses are also required to wear masks while working. Masks are not required outside unless people are unable to socially distance themselves from others.

Business owners can opt out of allowing enforcement on their property, but must post a sign indicating that they have done so. Businesses that are complying with the mask ordinance must post signs indicating the mask requirements.

The request to extend the ordinance another month was made at the recommendation of the city’s emergency management team, which has been meeting weekly since the pandemic began, to guide the city’s response, Arnold said.

The extension is recommended because, although the number of cases of COVID-19 has been decreasing recently, vaccination rates in DeKalb County and Georgia are still lower than the national average and because hospitals continue to see high rates of ICU bed utilization, though these have recently decreased, Arnold said.

“At this point, the CDC is continuing to recommend face coverings even for people that are vaccinated to protect the public,” Arnold said. “And in light of the CDC recommendation, the continued high transmission rates, the current variant, and just the fact that it’s still, even though 75 degrees today, it’s still winter, and there’s still lots of indoor activity. For those reasons, we are recommending an extension of the face covering.” 

Mayor Pro Tem Tony Powers said he felt conflicted about continuing to require face masks in light of the wide availability of vaccines and the widespread uses of masks in Decatur.

“I think people are going to do the right thing, that they wear masks when they know they need to – to protect a family member or someone,” he said. “In another month are we really going to move the needle in terms of how many more people will get vaccinated? We have all had ample opportunity to get vaccinated – I would get a fourth shot in the arm if they’d let me.  But some people are just not going to get it. It is getting harder and harder to tell my employees that we have to keep doing it for them.”

At some point, if the case numbers start going back up, he would favor re-implementing a requirement.

It might be time for the city to take a “more nimble” approach to its public health measures and respond to the changing rates of virus in the community, said Commissioner Kelly Walsh.

“If we find out from CDC, that they’re revising their recommendations, can we have a session within a very short period after the [emergency management] team reassembles and assesses and then make a decision that feels very responsive?” Walsh asked.

Commissioner Lesa Mayer said she has previously supported the extensions of the ordinance because she felt it gave protection to business owners and employees who wanted the requirement but faced too much pressure from customers or the public to require masks on their own.

“But the feedback that I’ve received that I am giving credence to came from business owners who feel as though this mandate is adversely impacting them,” Mayer said. “And so I think that if we do choose to extend the mass ordinance, it should be done for an extremely brief period of time.”

Over the next week, Mayer said she hopes to get more information about the impact to local businesses and also whether people who are working in health care still think that a mandate is needed to support our health system. 

The commissioners ultimately voted to pass an amended version of the ordinance that extends the same requirements to March 2. If the CDC alters its recommendations and local infection rates and ICU admissions continue to decrease, the commission can decide to let it lapse or take other measures, commissioners felt.

In other business, the commission:

-Unanimously approved a special exception to the Unified Development Ordinance requirements in the city’s Special Pedestrian Area to allow the owners of the property at 104-108 Church Street to construct a surface parking lot within 60 feet of the street. The vote is in accordance with the city Planning Commission’s recommendation. The exceptions will allow for the construction of a film editing studio at that location.

-Appointed Denise VanLanduyt as Municipal Judge for 2022. Cinque Axam, Tom Stubbs, and Tyler Edgerton were appointed to serve as substitute municipal judges for 2022.

-Approved an amendment to its Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) with the Decatur Housing Authority governing the issuance of bonds to finance housing development at Legacy Park. The additional funds requested are necessary to provide needed infrastructure improvements at the site, but were not a part of the original IGA terms, said DHA Director Doug Faust.

-Approved a project budget of $40,000 and award of a contract to Autaco Development, LLC in the amount of $28,800 for removal and replacement of storm water drainage pipe and backfilling of an associated sinkhole at the intersection of Sycamore Drive and Hillcrest Avenue.

-Authorized City Manager Arnold to execute a planning services agreement with Perez Planning + Design in the amount of $293,575 for a parks and recreation master plan.

-Approved a project budget of $12,000 and award of a contract in the amount of $11,537 to Solutionz, Inc. for technology upgrades to the conference room in the Department of Community and Economic Development.

-Approved an agreement with Atkins North America in the amount of $80,000 for the design of intersection improvements at East Lake Road and Parkwood Road.

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