The Fort Smith Board of Directors on Saturday (July 11) opted to table a vote on an ordinance that would require the use of face masks when indoors as a measure to help contain the spread of COVID-19.
The original ordinance would have required everyone over the age of 3 to “wear a mask while in all indoor environments (but not outdoor environments) in an effort to help curb the spread of COVID-19, in particular to protect the most vulnerable members of our community.”
During discussions prior to a vote on the ordinance, administrators from Mercy-Fort Smith and Baptist Health Fort Smith, noted that intensive care units at both hospitals were at capacity, though overflow areas were available. Dr. David Hunton, president of Mercy Clinic-Fort Smith, said the ICU at Mercy was full with 32 patients, half of which are COVID patients, but they have surge capacity elsewhere. He said eight COVID patients are on ventilators at Mercy. The Baptist ICU is also full, but a spokesperson said the hospital has a second ICU specifically for COVID patients still has some capacity.
Both hospitals noted that the question is not only of bed capacity but physician capacity and the ability to have enough doctors available to care for patients.
Arkansas Department of Health numbers show Sebastian County with 747 known positive cases of COVID-19, and 293 of those cases are active. There have been nine deaths, almost double from the five deaths on July 2. The active cases are up 14% since July 2, and the number of cumulative known cases are up 41% in the 11 days. As of Friday (July 10), there have been 26,803 known positive cases of COVID in Arkansas. Of those, 5,847 are active. There have been 313 deaths.
Dr. Brian Clardy, a physician with the University of Arkansas for Medical Science in Fort Smith, vice-chief of staff for Baptist Health-Fort Smith and Sebastian County Medical Officer, said he was nervous with what he sees in Fort Smith in regard to wearing a mask.
“I want to trust my fellow man to protect me and the people around, but I don’t see that happening at this point. We’ve enjoyed low population density and missed the first main wave. Now it’s coming and we have 1% of the population in Arkansas that’s tested positive and 7% of all tests now are positive. That means four or five people in this room right now are actively shedding the virus,” Clardy said.
In the proposed ordinance, exemptions were made for those with physical or mental health issues. Enforcement would come from the police department in the event a business owner requested enforcement. The ordinance would expire Dec. 31 or at the end of the health emergency declared by the governor, whichever came first.
After listening to many Fort Smith residents argue for and against the proposed ordinance, city directors requested amendments to the ordinance. The first would exempt churches and other places of worship, would have changed the mandate on children to follow what Fort Smith Public Schools decides mask requirements will be for children during the school year, and would remove what some directors considered ambiguous wording regarding businesses choosing to call on FSPD for enforcement. That amendment failed.
A second amendment that would allow businesses to decide if they wanted to require masks in their places of businesses did not receive a second.
A third amendment that would change the ordinance wording so the city encouraged residents to wear masks in any indoor environment passed. That amendment would make the ordinance say basically the same thing as a resolution passed by the board Tuesday (July 7) that “strongly encourages” the use of face masks in public. That amendment passed.
However, before directors could vote on the amended ordinance, Director André Good moved that the ordinance be tabled until directors could understand what they were voting on since the suggested changes, both approved and not, made it difficult to understand exactly what the vote was asking.
“I can’t see all the changes. We don’t even know what we are voting on,” Good said.
Directors voted 4-3 to table the issue. It was not announced when the next vote would be.
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.
Those speaking for and against the ordinance were fairly evenly split with many of those against the mandate raising questions on whether masks help, if they cause more problems by collecting germs and keeping them close to the wearer’s face, whether such a mandate goes against their constitutional rights to do what they want and how the ordinance would be enforced. Those wanting the mandate said residents needed to think about the greater good of their neighbors.