Health

Members of the New Albany City Council unanimously approved a resolution that “recommends and strongly encourages” the city’s citizens to wear face masks as coronavirus cases continue to increase across the country.

The resolution approved Thursday evening is not a mandate, meaning people are not required to wear masks. There are also no penalties for those who do not comply with the recommendation.

Council vice president Greg Phipps said during his introduction of the measure that he believes it is necessary for the community to wear masks to prevent further spread of the disease, both to the benefit of public health and the economy.

“In addition to doing it for our own self, more importantly, we need to do it for our community, for our families, our friends, our neighbors and the people that we come into contact with on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “Also, if we can keep our rates down, that’s going to ensure that our economy stays open. If the rates start to skyrocketing, we’re going to be facing another shutdown, and our local businesses have suffered tremendously from the shutdown that occurred earlier.”

Phipps went on to add that it would take an ordinance to enforce a mask mandate. But the council stopped short of taking such action, even as half of all states and many cities and counties throughout the country have already done so.

A majority of citizens who spoke during public comment called on the council to pass an ordinance to mandate masks. Those in favor of the move pointed out that the Indiana state government already highly recommends face coverings, noting that they do not believe the public will abide by a simple recommendation.

Council member Al Knable said that the council chose the route of a recommendation to avoid the public conflict that could arise with a requirement.

“The hope for this is that we can alter behavior and supersede the need to have an ordinance that would mandate it, because that becomes a lot more provocative to have an ordinance,” he said. “They’re difficult to enforce. It kind of empowers one group of people to call other ones out to the police. So anything that we can do to encourage positive, helpful, cooperative behavior, short of an ordinance, I think, should be pursued.”

Knable also proposed an amendment that would have called for executive action on the matter – whether from the city, county or state level – though it was ultimately not included. This could be from Mayor Jeff Gahan, the Floyd County Commissioners or, Knable’s preferred route, through an executive order from Gov. Eric Holcomb.

This, Knable said, would make regulations throughout the state uniform, thus more clearly defined for citizens.

“It’s probably also a more enforceable message if you do it from the state executive level,” he said. “I will also say that the governor has his hand on more comprehensive data than we do. He also has staff members that can dissect that data for him versus nine city council people trying to kind of interpret this data for ourselves.”

The council is prepared to pass an ordinance at its next meeting if the public does not widely comply with the resolution. Knable said members will communicate with the Floyd County Health Officer to determine whether or not the public is wearing masks at a satisfactory rate.

An emergency meeting could be scheduled at any point to consider the ordinance. The next regularly-scheduled council meeting is over two weeks from now.

Between June 28 and July 16, cases of coronavirus increased by 83 in Floyd County, or 23%. During that same time, cases increased by 8,884 in Indiana and 1,031,784 in the U.S., or 19.6% and 42%, respectively.

John Boyle covers southern Indiana communities and health for WFPL News. He is a Report for America Corps member.