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Covington, Newport Not Looking at Mandatory Face Masks

This article has been updated with comment from J.D. Chaney, executive director of the Kentucky League of Cities, and further comment from Bellevue City Administrator Frank Warnock.

President Donald Trump this week said, "I'm all for masks. I think masks are good." He added that when he wore one recently, it made him look like the Lone Ranger.

Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also said on the Senate floor this week that there should be no stigma attached to wearing a mask.

The cities of Dayton and Columbus in Ohio have each made mask-wearing mandatory by the public in certain cases. In Dayton, under the ordinance, people within the city limits will be required to wear a mask or face covering anytime they are in the public space or where physical distancing cannot be maintained, WHIO reported.

Cincinnati city council is expected to take up the issue on Friday.

"It is clear that tomorrow City Council will have a special meeting to consider a mask ordinance for indoor settings," Mayor John Cranley tweeted. 

But in Kentucky, a mask remains only a recommendation. Governor Andy Beshear said this week in an interview with RCN publisher Michael Monks on WVXU's Cincinnati Edition, that the COVID cases in Kentucky are steady right now, but if they begin to increase, he would look at a mandate on masks.

"Kentuckians do need to be more diligent about wearing masks," Beshear said. "People want things to be open. People want to get back to their old normal life as they can and it's pretty simple, it's about hands, face and space: wash your hands, wear a mask and don't touch your face, and stay six feet apart."

Beshear noted that a 30-year old died of the coronavirus in Kentucky this week. "I know that many people out there who aren't wearing masks think it can't harm them," the governor said. "It can."

The governor is typically seen during his public updates about COVID-19 wearing a mask. "I wear a mask because I believe I need to put the life and health of other people ahead of my own comfort," he said. "It's a small step I take because of my faith and how I care about other people."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention endorses the wearing of face masks, too. "Cloth face coverings are most likely to reduce the spread of COVID-19 when they are widely used by people in public settings. The spread of COVID-19 can be reduced when cloth face coverings are used along with other preventive measures, including social distancing, frequent handwashing, and cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces," it notes on its website.

A recent study released by Goldman Sachs suggested that a national mandate on face masks would save the U.S. economy $1 trillion if it worked as designed to slow the spread of COVID-19, which is spiking across the country.

"We don't want to go the way of Florida, California, Texas where their cases are going through the roof," Beshear said. He noted that Arizona has roughly ten times the number of positive cases as Kentucky with only one and a half times the population. "We're in a plateau. Let's stay there, and we stay there by wearing a mask.

"Inexpensive masks do the trick. Protect other people. What's at risk is our economy and the reopening."

The national numbers have increased significantly since restrictions on businesses like bars and restaurants loosened. Some states have already turned back on their reopening due to the case spike.

"Our rules are only as good as people's willingness to follow them," Beshear said. "We need to encourage people to do the right thing, to protect your neighbor, to protect our seniors, and to protect those with pre-existing conditions."

The City of Cincinnati is expected to take up a mask mandate on Friday, but the issue does not have unanimous support. Council members Jeff Pastor and Betsy Sundermann have expressed their opposition. Local restaurant chain Taste of Belgium, which is opening a location in Crestview Hills, responded to Sundermann on Twitter, "By voting against mask mandate you’re affirming hospitality workers are second class citizens in Cincinnati. We are mandated by the state of Ohio to wear masks. You can do the right thing and vote to protect the tens of thousands of hospitality workers in the city."

Northern Kentucky cities do not yet appear prepared to address masks in an official capacity beyond what the state has already suggested. 

J.D. Chaney, executive director of the Kentucky League of Cities, an advocacy group for municipalities in the Commonwealth, said that cities would have authority to enact a mask ordinance under the state's home rule law. 

"We wouldn't be prohibited from doing that," Chaney said. "When you look fundamentally at why cities exist and what their purpose is, one of their manifest duties is to protect the public health."

Chaney said that no Kentucky city has enacted such an ordinance yet but that he has received some casual inquiries about the possibility. When the pandemic first gripped the state, KLC created templates for cities to use as guidance for ordinances related to expanded outdoor dining, and Chaney said that the organization could do the same as it relates to a mask ordinance.

"The officials I've talked to say not only is it a public health issue, it's about keeping the economy going and not having to roll back, and city officials are devoted to seeing a prosperous local economy," he said.

"It's been overly politicized as if there's a constitutional right not to wear one," Chaney continued. "It's the same arguments we heard with the smoking ban. There is not a constitutional right not to, and if that's what's in the best interest of public health to keep the economy and general welfare going, I'd assume you see some cities do that."

Bellevue City Administrator Frank Warnock, an attorney who served as the City of Covington's solicitor for many years prior to his current role, said that he also believes Kentucky cities could enact a mask mandate under the state's home rule law, but also said that it could be challenged in the courts.

82.082 Power for public purpose only and not in conflict with Constitution or statutes. (1) A city may exercise any power and perform any function within its boundaries, including the power of eminent domain in accordance with the provisions of the Eminent Domain Act of Kentucky, that is in furtherance of a public purpose of the city and not in conflict with a constitutional provision or statute. (2) A power or function is in conflict with a statute if it is expressly prohibited by a statute or there is a comprehensive scheme of legislation on the same general subject embodied in the Kentucky Revised Statutes including, but not limited to, the provisions of KRS Chapters 95 and 96.

Warnock added that he has not heard yet of any effort to enact such an ordinance in his Campbell County city.

"There would more than likely be some strong resistance at least by a few if a city required the wearing of masks by those who don’t like being told what to do by the government," Warnock said in an email to RCN. "Some of my good friends don’t believe there is a problem, and it’s all some big hoax, but I don’t agree with them. I say listen to the doctors and health care professionals, and follow their advice. I hate wearing the mask, but I listen to the health care professionals. Read the data. Follow the number of people in the hospitals."

Officials from Covington and Newport responded to the question about the potential for a mask mandate.

"We understand the health concerns regarding the wearing of masks during the COVID-19 pandemic, but our police have no way to enforce an ordinance mandating the wearing of masks," said Newport City Manager Tom Fromme. "Our officers are already spread thin enough without being given another mandate. We trust that most individuals are making the right choices in maintaining a safe environment during the pandemic."

In Covington, City Hall is set to reopen to the public on Monday, with restrictions, including mandatory face masks for visitors. 

But there are no plans currently to explore mandatory masks in the public. 

“The City of Covington continues to follow Gov. Beshear’s COVID-19 safety guidelines and strongly encourages its businesses, workers, residents, and visitors to do the same," Mayor Joe Meyer said in a statement. "That includes practices like wearing a mask, social distancing, sanitizing surfaces, and frequent washing of hands.

“When it comes to something as formal as a mask mandate, the practical reality of Northern Kentucky geography is that in order for it to be successful, it has to be addressed regionally by the health department, the fiscal courts and/or the state.”

Northern Kentucky District Director of Health Dr. Lynne Saddler issued a statement to RCN on Thursday. "We have not been engaged in conversations with local or state government on mandating masks at this point. Rather, we are relying on residents of Northern Kentucky to do the right thing and wear a mask in public," Saddler said. "We know that widespread use of masks along with social distancing and hand washing prevents the spread of the COVID virus. These measures also protect the health care system from being overwhelmed and keeps businesses operating.  These are goals that we all can and should embrace."

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher

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