WAHOO – The Wahoo City Council reversed its previous decision and voided the mask mandate for the city last week.
The council heard public comments from about a dozen opponents of the facial masks, including several people from outside of Saunders County, during its meeting held by teleconference. Local health officials also provided information in support of the mandate.
The City of Wahoo Board of Health passed Order 2020-03 on Nov. 23 requiring everyone over the age of 5 to wear face coverings in any premises open to the public. The order defined this as public or private entities that employ or engage workers and any place that is generally open to the public, like schools or daycare facilities. The order was set to expire on Jan. 4.
On Nov. 24, the Wahoo City Council approved the first reading of an ordinance to reaffirm the order. The vote resulted in a 3-3 tie, but Mayor Jerry Johnson broke the tie in favor of the ordinance. The mandate became effective after the vote.
A public hearing was held on Dec. 10 before the second reading of the ordinance, which also passed after the mayor broke the tie vote. At that meeting, about 10 citizens spoke against the mask mandate, as well as Council Member Karen Boop.
At the Dec. 22 meeting, a group of opponents to the mask mandate gathered at a downtown business to voice their opinions via Zoom to the council and mayor.
Kyle Cooper of Wahoo led the public comments by stating that he opposed the mandate and supported an individual’s right to make their own decisions regarding their health. He added that the purpose of the meeting was not to debate the effectiveness of masks, but rather the government’s role in mandating mask usage.
“We’re actually talking about making criminals out of innocent people,” he said.
Enforcement of the mask mandate was being handled by the Wahoo Police Department on a complaint driven basis with fines handed out for noncompliance. No report of any citizens receiving fines has been publicly announced.
Barbara Hart of Wahoo also discussed a person’s right to choose whether or not they want to wear a mask rather than being forced to by local government.
“I will support every person in this community whether they wear a mask or choose not to,” she said. “But what I will not support is a mayor, a city council or any other body of government mandating that choice for us.”
Hart went on to say the mask requirement divided Wahoo.
“This type of mandate brings out the hate in people and mask shaming,” she said.
Courtney Girmus, a business owner in Saunders County who said she conducts a lot of business Wahoo, said a petition was started showing that the local citizens are not in favor of Wahoo’s mask mandate.
“Our petition shows that people and businesses of Saunders County want to choose for themselves,” she said.
Local health officials weighed in as well, lending support for the mask mandate.
Saunders Medical Center’s Dr. Hank Newburn, the city physician who is also on the board of health, said he does not like wearing a mask either, but does so every day because it is the right thing to do.
“This really is not about wearing a mask,” he said. “This is about protecting the public from the COVID-19 illness.”
Newburn countered claims that wearing a mask can make a person ill, saying no health professional at Saunders Medical Center has become sick or had any health problems related to mask wearing.
“If they did, I guarantee you they would’ve done something about it years ago,” he added.
Newburn said there is evidence that masks deter the virus.
“This result has been demonstrated time after time, across the nation. Whenever a mask mandate goes into effect, COVID-19 cases go down and that means that people don’t get sick,” he said.
Julie Rezac, CEO at SMC, said the county’s positivity rate remains high, averaging 33% through mid-December and reaching 40% on Dec. 21.
“We continue to see the Saunders County positivity rate go up,” she said.
Terra Uhing, executive director of Three Rivers Public Health Department, said positivity rates in the entire district, which includes Saunders, Dodge and Washington counties, may be seeing a slight decrease. But she expects the numbers to climb again after the holidays.
“I look for the middle of January potentially to possibly not be very good for us,” she said.
After the comments, members of the city council voiced their opinions.
Council President Stuart Krejci said the COVID-19 situation in the county and state has changed since the order was initially passed. In late November, the area was nearing the “red zone” in terms of hospitalizations and positivity rates, which could have possibly led to further restrictions passed by the state.
“This was a lot of the reasons we were looking at a mandate,” he said.
However, the numbers have begun to decrease, Krejci added, making it hard for him to back the mask mandate.
“I’m struggling with being able to support it further,” he said.
Boop said the fact that a petition gathered 267 signatures against the mask mandate, including 37 businesses, is proof that the public is not in favor of the council continuing the order.
“So it seems to be overwhelming here in the community that a mask mandate is not appropriate or constitutional,” she said.
Following the lengthy discussion, the council voted down the third reading of an ordinance to reaffirm the Board of Health’s original order to require facial masks. The council had approved the first and second readings of the ordinance at previous meetings with a tie vote that was broken by the mayor.
The third reading failed to pass, as council members Krejci, Boop, Carl Warford, Patrick Nagle and Ryan Ideus voted no. The only yes vote was from Council Member Chris Rappl.
After the ordinance failed, the council introduced an ordinance to void the Board of Health order. That passed on a 4-2 vote, with Rappl and Warford voting no. The council had also approved waiving the mandatory three readings, making it the final vote on the ordinance.
The ordinance to void the mandate went into effect immediately. City Attorney Jovan Lausterer said the mayor could reconvene the Board of Health, which has the authority to issue another mask mandate if the board sees fit. Johnson said he would take the matter under advisement.