"Wash Hands. Wear Masks. Watch Movies."

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

By Sarah Donaldson

Athens NEWS Intern

In an emergency meeting Monday night, Athens City Council unanimously passed an ordinance mandating face masks as the city grapples with a recent rise in coronavirus (COVID-19) cases.

The city-wide mandate, which was first introduced at an emergency committee meeting Friday, requires face coverings in public spaces in the city of Athens, including inside of businesses that are open to the public and at outdoor spaces where social distancing is not possible.

Under the ordinance, face masks must cover an individual’s nose, mouth and chin, and must be worn when entering and exiting as well as inside of businesses open to the public and buildings operated by the city of Athens.

Face coverings are also required on all methods of public transportation in the city, including buses, public transits, taxis and rideshares.

When outside, face masks are only required where physical separation of six feet or more in between individuals is not possible.

During the meeting, the council suspended the rules and expedited the voting process on the ordinance, which went into effect immediately after it was passed.

“Our numbers are changing rapidly, and I think the faster we can put this in place, the better it will be for our community,” Councilmember Sarah Grace said during the meeting, which was held on Zoom.

Councilmember Peter Kotses compared the ordinance to seat belt laws and speed limits — designed to keep people safe, but not always adhered to across the board.

“We’re not going to see 100 percent compliance, but setting an expectation allows us to maybe see the type of behavior that we would like to see during this time,” Councilmember Kotses said. “If you don’t set the tone, there’s a good chance you’ll never achieve what you would like to see.”

Non-compliant individuals could incur a civil fine for refusing to put on a face covering. The fine would be noncriminal, meaning it would not appear on a person’s criminal record.

“Any violation of this section shall be considered an administrative offense requiring a fine of $100 payable to the city of Athens through the Athens Police Department,” the ordinance states.

Individuals tacked with that 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 outlined in the ordinance.

Exceptions are made for individuals who have medical conditions, mental health conditions or developmental disabilities. Children under 10 years old are also exempt.

But if the fine isn’t paid or appealed within 30 days, it turns into a misdemeanor.

In a list of scenarios outlined in the ordinance, individuals are also allowed to be unmasked. Some of these settings include eating or drinking in a bar or restaurant, receiving dental services or medical treatment, and swimming.

Additionally, the city ordinance does not cover Athens County buildings, Ohio University buildings, K-12 school buildings, the post office or the fairgrounds, because the city does not have jurisdiction over these spaces, according to Athens City Law Director Lisa Eliason.

The full ordinance can be viewed on the city of Athens website.

The mandate comes as COVID-19 cases continue to spike in Athens County — a spike that the county did not see at the start of the pandemic.

“We’re in a period where we’re seeing, not linear anymore, but exponential growth,” Mayor Steve Patterson said during the meeting.

In the last 10 days, the Athens-City County Health Department reported 149 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Athens County. The county only had 43 confirmed cases prior to July 3.

Patterson and several other city officials, including Grace, Eliason, Athens City Council President Chris Knisely and Interim Service Safety Director Tom Pyle developed the legislation last week.

“It’s truly going to take a citywide effort on all parts,” Patterson said in an earlier interview. “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.”

Similar mask requirements have been implemented in cities across the state, including Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati.

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