The Whitefish City Council adopted an ordinance requiring the use of face coverings in public settings at an emergency meeting on July 14.
The decision came as Flathead County reported nine new COVID-19 cases for the second straight day, and one week after the city adopted a mask resolution that urged, but did not require, residents and visitors to wear cloth face coverings in public settings.
Prior to the unanimous vote for the ordinance, which goes into effect at 12:01 a.m. July 15, council members said they reviewed 356 written comments and considered input from members of the public who attended the meeting in person.
Comments during the public hearing portion of the meeting lasted for more than 90 minutes. The majority of those in attendance did not wear masks and were opposed to the ordinance, asking city officials to vote against it.
“At some point people have to take responsibility for their own actions,” said Jenna Anderson, a personal trainer at The Wave in Whitefish. “You can’t force health on someone.”
The written comments, which can be viewed online, were 69% in favor of the ordinance and 27% opposed to it according to the council. The remaining 4% didn’t state a preference.
“I think it’s reasonable for the council to pass this ordinance,” said Chris Schustrom, owner of the Garden Wall Inn. “It’s the least we could do; it’s not an undue burden on us.”
The Chamber of Commerce, which represents a majority of Whitefish area businesses, did not take a stance on the issue, but Executive Director Kevin Gartland spoke at the meeting, saying members were about evenly split.
“Obviously, a very divisive issue on a number of different levels — emotional, psychological, fiscal — and I’m not going to help you clear it up at all,” Gartland said. “We just want to make sure our businesses aren’t overly burdened by this and it has the potential to give them a real sock in the wallet.”
The chamber has received a few thousand reusable masks that will be dispersed to business owners. Mayor John Muhlfeld also said another round of business adaptability grants would be available through the state, which can be used to purchase personal protective equipment.
The text of the ordinance mandates that businesses require employees, customers and visitors to wear face coverings in any area open to the general public and where social distancing of six feet cannot be maintained. Individuals are required to wear a face covering when inside or standing in line to enter a business, while utilizing public transportation, and when taking part in organized gatherings of more than 20 people.
Exceptions to the rule are allowed for children under the age of 12, individuals with medical or mental health conditions, and for individuals who are actively exercising, eating or drinking or where it is not practical, such as during a haircut.
Masks are not required in indoor spaces that are not open to the public, such as private office spaces, if social distancing can be maintained.
Businesses that violate the ordinance will first be contacted to ensure full understanding, and then can receive civil citations that could lead to a suspension or revocation of any business license.
For individuals who do not wear a mask and refuse to leave a space where masks are required after being asked to do so, a disorderly conduct, trespassing or disturbing the peace citation could be issued, according to Whitefish City Attorney Angela Jacobs.
The ordinance will expire in one month unless the council takes further action to extend it.
“We’re doing this for the businesses and for the friends of mine that work in the downtown, that sling beers, that wait tables, that bus dishes, that are in a very risky environment,” Muhlfeld said. “I sincerely hope we can look back in two to three months and say we missed the mark and say we overreacted but if not I certainly wont’ regret the action we’re taking this morning.”
The full ordinance can be found here: Ord.-No-20-___-Requiring-Face-Coverings-071320