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Uptown Athens is covered with Mask Up signs. It is now required that people wear a mask while in public. Failure to do so will result in a misdemeanor charge.

Athens City Council amended its existing mask mandate Monday to require indoor mask use regardless of vaccine status — standing alone as city health departments across the state find their hands tied under recently passed legislation.

Council suspended the rules to vote on the amendment, which was passed unanimously. The order takes effect immediately and expires on Feb. 28, 2022, although Athens City Council could rescind the order before then.

Athens joins the City of Oxford (home of Miami University) as one of the few municipalities seeking to restore mask mandates. The Ohio Capital Journal reported last week that Columbus, Ohio’s largest city, had its hands tied in terms of issuing a mask order, citing recently passed legislation in the general assembly.

Senate Bill 22 which took effect earlier this summer, forbids local health departments from issuing blanket health mandates among people not diagnosed with any disease.

Athens City-County Health Department Administrator Jack Pepper said SB22 has essentially stripped the department of power to issue a mask mandate. The ACCHD has recently issued a county-wide mask advisory, which is unenforceable.

Athens Law Director Lisa Eliason, who was not present at the meeting, said the city's actions fall under the home rule principles in the Ohio Constitution.

“I do believe we have authority — this is an administrative action,” Eliason said.

Sarah Grace, who introduced the amendment, said it was time to follow the science and require universal mask mandates at indoor public spaces, regardless of vaccination status.

“A short while ago we removed the requirement for vaccinated individuals,” Grace said. “We are putting that back in place and asking everyone to be as safe as we possibly can.”

Recently updated CDC guidelines recommend that masks be worn indoors in areas with substantial or high transmission, or above 50+ cases out of 100,000 people per week. Athens entered substantial transmission status last week; Ohio University students will soon begin returning to campus for the fall semester that starts Aug. 23.

According to a recent CDC report, breakthrough infections of coronavirus “occur in only a small proportion of vaccinated people, and of the breakthrough infections, transmission by the vaccinated appears to only be a small part of overall spread of the virus.”

No research is available on asymptomatic spread of the virus from the vaccinated, the CDC says.

The new mask mandate does not require mask use in restaurant kitchens or other areas the public is not expected to be in, Grace said. It also allows people to remove masks while eating or drinking.

Athens Council Member Ben Ziff, who works at Donkey Coffee, said “90%” of service industry workers will feel safer with the new mandate. (Some businesses in the area have gone it a step further; The Union, on West Union Street, and Stuart's Opera House both announced last week that proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test is a condition of entry.)

“As someone who is very entrenched in the service industry in this town, it will make me feel safer going into work," Ziff said. "None of us want to close down again, that is a huge loss of jobs and revenue.”

The order does not affect capacity levels, Patterson said.

Grace added during the meeting the reason they were not taking action on the spaces that are not “public,” like kitchens, is because it falls under the ACCHD authority, which has been significantly reduced by SB22.

Athens Mayor Steve Patterson said the ordinance aligns the city with policies of Athens City School Districts and Ohio University; both declared indoor mask requirements in recent weeks. He added the city needed to take action as students returned to town.

“We missed them over the summer, I’m just not a fan of what they might be bringing back,” Patterson said.

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