The Dickinson County Commission on Thursday unanimously extended the public health order that requires the wearing of face masks/coverings in public spaces where social distancing cannot be maintained.
Earlier in the meeting, commissioners heard from a county resident representing the Facebook group “Stand Up for Truth on Covid in Dickinson County,” seeking the removal of all mandates and public health orders related to COVID-19 issued by the county and other requests.
The health order extension went into effect at midnight Jan. 29 and is effective for 45 days until March 18.
First approved on Nov. 19, the health order requires the wearing of masks or face coverings inside of, or in line of, any indoor public space, and outdoors in public places when unable to maintain a 6-foot distance.
The original health order also included an enforcement mechanism that included prosecution and fines; however, the commission — in a 2 to 1 vote — removed that portion of the order in December.
Besides extending the mask mandate for 45 days, the order increased the number of people who can meet in mass gatherings from 25 to 50 percent of a building’s fire occupancy rating. For facilities without a fire code capacity, the maximum number was increased from 30 to 50 people.
“A couple ministers mentioned this recently,” said Commission Chairman Lynn Peterson, explaining that churches are the most obvious examples in Dickinson County of places that will benefit by allowing more attendance.
Peterson noted that Pastor Gordon McClure of Emmanuel Church in Abilene requested the change several weeks ago and they also had heard from Rev. Justin Panzer who represents a number of churches around the state.
“I think churches are taking care and doing what they can for social distancing and separation,” Peterson said, adding church leaders want an opportunity for parishioners to attend and participate.
Referring to data showing a downward trend in the number of COVID cases countywide, Peterson said the commission could “revisit” the health order and make changes at a later time.
Dickinson County Health Department Director John Hultgren agreed that COVID-19 numbers have decreased locally and across the state.
“Which is a good sign,” Hultgren said, explaining the health department and county officials intend to reevaluate the health order every 30 or 45 days.
“Since we are seeing some decrease in the numbers, we’re willing to make some changes in the numbers of gatherings,” he said.
Also with vaccines now becoming more available, Hultgren is hopeful COVID numbers will continue to decline to a point where the health order is not necessary.
“I would like that to be sooner rather than later, but I don’t think we’re to that point yet,” Hultgren said.
He’s concerned about reports of COVID variations and is hopeful those variations will not make county numbers “jump.” He encouraged county residents to take the vaccine when their rollout phase becomes available.
“It will get us to herd immunity and get us out of some of these restrictions,” Hultgren said.
Before extending the mask mandate, the commission heard from county residents Ronda Beaupre who read into the record the cover letter of the petition from the Facebook group “Stand Up for Truth on Covid in Dickinson County.”
Beaupre was one of about 20 people who attended the meeting online and via telephone. Commission meetings went virtual on Jan. 14 because of social distancing concerns and in preparation for the move out of the courthouse while it is being renovated.
The petition with original signatures was presented to Chairman Peterson on Jan. 27 with copies given to Commissioners Ron Roller and Craig Chamberlin.
Signed by 415 county residents, Beaupre said the petition “demonstrates more people are against the mandate than are for it.”
(Based on 2019 data, the population of Dickinson County is 18,828.)
“Let me remind you that we are not against voluntary masks and social distancing. We oppose a mandate that requires them,” Beaupre said.
Those collecting signatures for the petition said they frequently heard from many who said they would not sign because they feared they would lose their jobs or their customers, a condition petitioners found “disturbing.”
“This should not be,” Beaupre said, reading from the cover letter. “If a mask mandate was effective (we have presented evidence that it is not) then there would be no need to threaten or intimidate people who have a contrary opinion into complying with it. They would do so voluntarily.”
She told commissioners the group wants a “verbal response” to its petition and “prompt action” taken on the items stated in the petition.
Beaupre asserted that the 415 signatures shows that people against the mask mandate “vastly outnumber” those in favor and challenged mask supporters to collect signatures on their own petition to prove their numbers.
Peterson said a copy of the petition was given to County Clerk Barb Jones for the record.
Peterson also said the county continues to receive large amounts of correspondence representing both sides of the issue.
Contact Kathy Hageman at firstname.lastname@example.org.