Fort Smith board OKs resolution encouraging mask use, to consider mask ordinance in special meeting

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 1,348 views 

The Fort Smith Board of Directors on Tuesday (July 7) approved a resolution that “strongly encourages” the use of face masks in public. The board also set July 11 to discuss a model ordinance on mask use that recently received the green light from Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

The board will meet at 9 a.m. July 11 at the Fort Smith Convention Center to consider the model ordinance. Amendments to the model ordinance outlined by City Director Lavon Morton will be made available to the public prior to the meeting.

The resolution approved 7-0 by the board was crafted for Eureka Springs and came before the model ordinance made public July 3 by Gov. Hutchinson, City Administrator Carl Geffken said. Following is the closing part of the resolution the board approved.

“The City of Fort Smith does not attempt to mandate the use of masks/facial coverings, nor does the city attempt to penalize those who choose to abstain from wearing such coverings. However, the City of Fort Smith strongly encourages all of those who may safely wear facial coverings to do so in the effort to help curb the spread of COVID-19, in particular to protect the most vulnerable members of our state, as well as to ensure that the hard-won progress made by the citizens of Arkansas in reopening our shared economy is preserved.”

The governor signed an executive order July 3 allowing cities to adopt a “model ordinance” requiring mask use. The ordinance was drafted in coordination with the Arkansas Municipal League (AML). John Wilkerson, AML general counsel, said the ordinance also is “geared toward supporting local businesses, who, as we have seen, have had challenges in enforcing the requirement to wear a mask.” Language in the ordinance notes that law enforcement officers “will act in a support capacity to local businesses that wish to enforce the use of masks upon their premises.” There is no penalty provision in the model ordinance.

Fayetteville and Little Rock issued mask ordinances prior to July 3. The Fayetteville ordinance went beyond the governor’s public health guidelines, with Gov. Hutchinson deciding to not take action against the Northwest Arkansas city. Little Rock’s ordinance followed language in the governor’s health order. Rogers and Conway have approved the ordinance. While not an ordinance, the University of Arkansas has said masks are now required on campus.

A majority of those speaking during the meeting opposed the resolution, with one person suggesting it is “socialistic.” One woman opposing the resolution demanded in an emotional speech: “Don’t make me look like a Muslim.” Others suggested the resolution would open the door to more strict moves by the city that could ultimately mandate mask use in public.

Director Robyn Dawson said the 50-70 emails received on the subject show “overwhelming support from the community” for wearing masks, and wanted citizens to know the resolution “does not mandate” the wearing of masks. Morton also said the “overwhelming” number of e-mail and other citizen outreach he received prior to the meeting was “strongly” in favor of mask use. He said with six weeks before school is set to begin and to ensure businesses can remain open, it’s time to begin efforts to “reduce the transmission of the disease.”

“I’m interested in the general population not having these diseases. Arkansas has been on an upswing. We’ve had a couple of good days, but the trend has been up since we reopened the businesses. Now, in the worst scenario, they have to close those businesses down again. … When I weigh that against what I consider to be a very limited physical burden if wearing a mask, it’s clear to me that a mask mandate is appropriate,” Morton said, adding that exemptions should be made for those with legitimate medical reasons against wearing a mask.

Director André Good said sometimes people have to be “nudged” into doing the right thing, noting that he wears a mask to protect his immediate family.

“So whether the masks do 50% good, or 1% good, I’d rather take my chances on doing something for someone else than not give a flip,” Good said.

Morton initially moved to substitute the resolution with an amended version of the AML model ordinance. Director Kevin Settle pushed back, saying it was “disingenuous” to make a complete substitute with no public notification.

“To make a wholesale change tonite … is not really fair to the citizens of the city,” Settle said.

Morton said he understood Settle’s sentiment, and, with scheduling coordination managed by Geffken, changed his motion to discuss the ordinance on July 11.

The board approved a resolution approving Covia ISP for participation in the state of Arkansas’ “Tax Back” program, a state program where companies can apply for rebates on state and local sales taxes paid for building materials or equipment necessary to build or expand a business.

Covia ISP plans to invest $5.8 million in property at 5300 Gerber Road in Fort Smith to produce “ultra-white fillers” for the engineered stone market. Of the investment, the company will spend $4 million in new construction, $1.5 million in equipment and equipment upgrades, and $300,000 in renovations. The estimated 30 new manufacturing jobs are projected to have an average hourly wage of $26.89.

Also in a formality, the board also approved a resolution paving the way for an expansion at the Gerber Products Company’s Fort Smith facility through the issuance of about $30 million in industrial development revenue bonds. The Gerber expansion will house food processing and manufacturing equipment and will include associated machinery and infrastructure improvements at the site. In addition to the product line expansion and the retention of 480 employees, the company will add 25 new jobs with an approximate average wage of $21 per hour.