The Whitefish City Council on July 6 adopted a resolution encouraging the use of cloth masks or face coverings in public settings to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, citing a recent groundswell of support from local business owners and citizens.
Prior to adopting the resolution through a unanimous vote, council members said they reviewed 528 letters and considered comments from members of the public who attended the meeting in person.
The majority of those who attended the meeting opposed the resolution, appearing before council members unmasked and imploring city leaders to reject the proposal. Because capacity at City Hall is limited due to COVID-19 guidelines, city staff encouraged the public to submit input in writing.
The majority of the public input gathered prior to the meeting, or about 67 percent, supported adopting a formal resolution, city officials said, noting that the resolution stops short of enforcing compliance. About 30 percent opposed the resolution while 3 percent expressed indifference.
Members of the public who opposed the resolution complained it could have a chilling effect on the tourism economy, including local business owner Stacey McGough, of McGough & Co., a jewelry store located in downtown Whitefish.
“I was infuriated,” McGough said of her reaction to learning of the proposal. “I’m surprised that there are as many in favor of it. They must not realize that this town is supported by tourism.”
City council members stressed the resolution does not carry an enforcement mechanism and is not designed to infringe on personal freedoms, but was drafted in response to rising health concerns within the community as businesses brace for the busy months ahead.
The text of the proposed resolution states that everyone “should” wear face coverings when indoors in public settings or communal spaces, including parks and sidewalks, but stops short of issuing a mandate or health order like the ones introduced in states like California, Washington and Oregon.
The resolution will sunset in two months unless council takes further action to extend it.
“This is not a mandate,” Councilor Ryan Hennen said. “I really just see this as a small sacrifice and a sign of compassion to those of us who are immunocompromised in our community.”
Still, if the city determines the guidelines are not being adhered to, it will consider passing an ordinance mandating the guidelines and providing penalties for non-compliance.
“When social distancing is not possible, science strongly shows that the use of masks can help prevent the spread of the virus,” Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld said. “We have seen many examples around the country where the virus continues to spike and we want to do everything possible to protect our vulnerable community and keep our economy open.”
The resolution makes exceptions for children under the age of 6; individuals for whom a mask would cause impairment due to a physical or mental condition; individuals working in a profession in which the use of a mask would not be compatible with their duties; individuals exercising if a mask or face covering would interfere with their breathing; and individuals seated at a restaurant or bar while eating or drinking.
Councilor Andy Feury said the resolution is a sign of compromise, and was designed to strike a balance between those requesting a mask mandate and others with objections to any sort of guidance on face coverings.
“I had someone say to me the other day, ‘You know, pants are uncomfortable but I do it for you,’ and I think that’s about right,” Feury said. “No matter how much science I pull out of the drawer, or whatever rabbit hole I go down on the internet, I’m not going to convince anyone to change their beliefs. But somehow in this country we have lost the ability to compromise. We all feel so unabashedly certain that our viewpoint is the correct one that we have no time for others.”
Numerous proponents pointed to new studies showing the use of masks and face coverings is among the most effective ways to reduce person-to-person transmission of coronavirus. In one study, a team of researchers led by a Texas A&M University professor found that not wearing a facemask dramatically increases a person’s chances of being infected by the COVID-19 virus.
In Whitefish, calls for a “mask mandate” have continued to increase, particularly as the small resort community experiences a surge of out-of-state visitors. Supporters of the city’s resolution include small business owners who wish to remain open while also strengthening protective health measures for vulnerable staff members, as well as the community at large.
“Now, more than ever, our community needs to come together and require that everyone wear face masks in our town,” Denise Magstadt, owner of Imagination Station in downtown Whitefish, wrote to council members.
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