"Wash Hands. Wear Masks. Watch Movies."

The Athena Cinema reminded passersby to "wash hands, wear masks and watch movies." Photo by Sarah Donaldson.

Whether walking on the sidewalk or grabbing an iced coffee, residents and visitors alike could be required by the city of Athens to wear a face mask as early as next week.

Athens City Council is set to hold an emergency committee meeting Friday at 5p.m. to introduce an ordinance mandating face coverings in the city — both outdoors, in areas where social distancing is not possible, and indoors, at all businesses — in an effort to curb the continued spread of COVID-19.

Mayor Steve Patterson said he and several other city officials, including Athens City Law Director Lisa Eliason, Athens City Council President Chris Knisely, Interim Service Safety Director Tom Pyle, and Councilmember Sarah Grace, have been working on the legislation for the last week.

“COVID-19 is killing people. We don’t have a vaccine. We, in a lot of cases, certainly don’t have enough testing to do universal testing of everybody to see if people have COVID-19,” Patterson said in an interview. “The best thing that we can do, if people are to go out and about and responsibly care about each other and protect everybody, is to have a mask on your face.”

As of Friday morning, the Athens City-County Health Department has reported one death in the county related to COVID-19. Statewide, the Ohio Department of Health has reported more than 3,000 total COVID-19 fatalities.

Similar mask mandates have been implemented in cities across the state, including Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati. Patterson said the Athens ordinance, if passed, would mimic those municipalities’ measures.

Under a city-wide mask requirement, an Athens Police Department officer could, hypothetically, stop an unmasked individual and ask them to put on a face covering. That officer could also issue a warning, according to Patterson.

“That warning also becomes a reminder,” he said. “Put a mask on. We’re under a pandemic.”

Patterson said, however, that the ordinance would largely be complaint-based.

“People will call and say, ‘You know, there’s a large group of people who are gathered somewhere and none of them have masks on.’ Well, under the Athens City code — if this passes — you will be subject to violation if you don’t have a face covering,” he said.

Non-compliant individuals could incur a civil fine for multiple refusals. The fine would be noncriminal, meaning it would not appear on a person’s criminal record.

Patterson said individuals tacked with a fine could appear before an appeals board, which would be comprised of members of the Athens City-County Public Health Department, if they feel they were wrongly cited — for example, if they have a health condition that is under the exemptions section of the ordinance.

“It’s truly going to take a citywide effort on all parts,” he said. “It’s going to take the business owners and leaders, they need to be engaged and be part of the solution. It requires us as citizens to be part of the solution. It also includes the Athens City-County Health Department to be part of the solution.”

Councilmember Beth Clodfelter said that she believes there is an “economic argument for a mask requirement, too.”

She said that a mask mandate, which aims to slow the spread of the virus, would help to keep local businesses open and allow employees to keep working.

Several local businesses, including Donkey Coffee and Espresso and The Pigskin Bar and Grille, have already shut their doors temporarily as employees test positive for COVID-19 and cases rise locally.

Clodfelter said she hasn’t yet seen the language of the ordinance, but plans to support it if it’s going to keep people safer.

“The near-daily increases of confirmed cases in Athens County, and the resulting upward curve of our trend line, are concerning,” Clodfelter said. “Having more community members wearing masks would provide increased protection to the mask wearers and would reduce the odds of sick and asymptomatic residents giving other community members this dangerous virus.”

Patterson is concerned, too, with the spike in cases of COVID-19 in Athens County in recent weeks — a spike that the county did not see at the start of the pandemic.

During the height of the March and April stay-at-home order, Athens only had three confirmed cases. But in the last two weeks alone, Athens has had nearly 60 new confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Although the ordinance is being introduced Friday, councilmembers will likely have to reconvene in another emergency meeting to vote on the measure, since the body is on their annual July recess. This could be as soon as Monday, if they choose to suspend the rules and expedite the voting process.

Athens City Council’s Friday committee meeting will be held on Zoom and community members are invited to join. The meeting will also be live-streamed on Athens City Council’s Facebook page.

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