JONESBORO — The number of Arkansas cities passing ordinances to require people to wear face coverings in public places is growing, as Jonesboro City Council members consider doing the same.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson has refused to issue a statewide mandate, but he compromised Friday and endorsed a model ordinance developed by the Arkansas Municipal League, an organization that provides support services for cities.
Both the Conway and Rogers city councils approved the model ordinance Monday. Hot Springs joined that number Tuesday.
However, there is no penalty for individuals who fail to comply. But Hot Springs City Attorney Brian Albright explained violators who refuse to leave a business when asked can be charged with misdemeanor criminal trespass. If they become belligerent with police they can be charged with interfering with governmental operations, he said.
Council members Ann Williams and L.J. Bryant said they would be sponsoring the proposed ordinance, even though Mayor Harold Perrin has said it would be unenforceable.
Bill Campbell, the city’s communications director, said Wednesday that Perrin was still studying the model ordinance.
“Not because he doubts the efficiency of face coverings but the language that does not specifically require face masks be worn. He is concerned that it unfairly asks police to respond to calls without enforcement power and doesn’t want to tie up 9-1-1 and JPD with face mask calls if there is no enforcement process. That said, he believes strongly in ADH and CDC guidelines, as well as Dr. Shane Speights and others in town who advocate for mask wearing.”
Campbell also pointed out that Perrin was the first mayor in Arkansas to promote mask wearing, even before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines.
Williams said the report by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences firmed her resolve to do something.
The UAMS model, using data up to July 1, forecasts that there will be 20,000 new daily infections by the end of September if conditions do not change. With some increase in mitigation the model shows 12,000 new daily infections. However, if there is almost complete compliance with mask wearing in public, the new daily infections prediction is cut to 6,000.
As of Wednesday, at least 25,246 people in Arkansas have tested positive for the virus, an increase of 734 cases since Tuesday. The department said 5,545 were still sick. The death toll stood at 305.
Numbers for Craighead County are relatively low compared to West Memphis, Conway and the northwest Arkansas cities.
“I don’t want us to wait until it’s really catastrophic, I would like to avoid that,” Williams said Wednesday. She said she doesn’t want to be a voice of doom, “but there is the reality of this. I just want to be on the right side of history on this, come August and September.”
Williams said she has been contacted by out-of-town college students who want to feel safe when they return to Jonesboro and enter businesses. Businesses have contacted her, wanting help in enforcing state health department directives, even if it’s just in the form of a sign out front, she said. Parents worry that the start of school and fall sports could be impacted by a surge of infections, Williams said.
But council member Bobby Long said there’s more to it than that. He sees potential negative outcomes.
“First, I think there would be frustration from citizens who were seeing no enforcement,” Long said. “I think there would be frustration from citizens who are confronted by enforcement. I think it would increase the propensity of unnecessary altercations between citizens and police. I think it would increase the propensity for accusations of targeting by police. I think it would increase the possibility for economic downturn, because there will be people who if they have to wear masks they’re not going to go shop and things like that.”
Long said the debate will bring more division than unity.
While several cities are passing the model ordinance, at least two cities took a different approach.
Both Fort Smith and Siloam Springs passed identical resolutions Tuesday.
“The City of Siloam Springs does not attempt to mandate the use of masks/facial coverings, nor does the City attempt to penalize those who choose to abstain from wearing such coverings,” the resolution states. “However, the City of Siloam Springs strongly encourages all of those who may safely wear facial coverings to do so in the effort to help curb the spread of COVID-19, in particular to protect the most vulnerable members of our state, as well as to ensure that the hard won progress made by the citizens of Arkansas in reopening our shared economy is preserved.”
Williams said she hopes to have a proposed ordinance ready for debate at the city council’s next meeting on July 21.