UPDATE: Requirement for Mask-Wearing in Downtown East Lansing

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Clockwise from center: Mayor Aaron Stephens, Council member Lisa Babcock, City Manager George Lahanas, and Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg at tonight's virtual meeting, and a masked Sparty campaign graphic.

UPDATE, AUGUST 7, 2020: Mayor Aaron Stephens declared a State of Emergency today and issued an order requiring masks to be worn in all outdoor public spaces, indoors and outdoors, in the DDA district starting Monday, Aug. 10. Failure to follow the order can result in a $25 fine. Council is expected to visit this issue at its August 11 meeting.

July 29, 2020: City Council announced plans at its meeting tonight to declare East Lansing’s Downtown Development Authority District – spanning Grand River Avenue from Valley Court Park to Hagadorn Road – a mandatory mask-wearing zone in terms of public spaces.

This would include roads, sidewalks, and other publicly-owned spaces.

The discussion follows on the heels of MSU suspending football practice and requesting all football players undertake a two-week quarantine after 16 athletes and 4 staff members tested positive for COVID-19. And, of course, the specter of the Harper’s outbreak cluster looms large as tens of thousands of students are poised to return to East Lansing.

During the discussion item, City Manager George Lahanas told Council that under recently-passed City Ordinance 1488, the Mayor can declare a State of Emergency and then institute special rules and regulations to accompany the order. Within seven days of the order, Council would need to meet and reaffirm the new regulations.

Lahanas requested that Mayor Aaron Stephens declare an emergency and order the Downtown area – following the Downtown Development Authority’s (DDA) boundaries – a mandatory mask-wearing zone in advance of Council’s August 11 meeting. Council could then approve these moves at the August 11 meeting, when Council is expected to be joined by two newly-appointed members.

Lahanas stated that while the crowds are currently thin in the downtown area, students will begin returning as early as August 1, with their numbers ratcheting up quickly after August 15. He suggested that Stephens declare the emergency on August 5.

Both Stephens and Lahanas referred to the mandatory mask zone as something that has grown out of larger conversations with the university, public health officials, and the Responsible Hospitality Committee (a trade association of local bars and restaurants).

Last week, the DDA permitted the Downtown Management Board (DMB) to reallocate $20,000 of its budget toward signage about mask wearing and other public health measures, but it seems that advice is not seen as enough by City leaders.

Council and the City Manager seemed in agreement that mask-wearing should not be left to the police to enforce. Instead, Lanahas plans for the City to hire “ambassadors” – identified by uniform t-shirts – to walk around downtown on the weekends to encourage mask-wearing and to provide masks to those without them.

This would mimic MSU’s plan and provide “a peer-to-peer” approach.

Gregg expressed a lack of enthusiasm for the measure since Governor Whitmer’s executive orders already make it mandatory to wear a mask when it is impossible to maintain six feet of distance from others.

However, she said that she “sees the wisdom” of the order since “people are not self-regulating” in crowded situations.

Gregg said she believes it is important for restaurants and bars to regulate their lines by reducing the number of people waiting in line and enforcing masking regulations.

According to Lahanas, many venues are now using electronic waiting lists.

Stephens said that some local bars are considering only allowing those with reservations to gain entry on MSU football game days if MSU sticks with its plan for fall athletics.

When asked what she thought, Babcock referred to a comment she said her high school English teacher made: “Laws are made for the lowest common denominator.” She concluded that the policy is necessary for the small percentage of people who are not complying with the executive order.

East Lansing residents should expect to see a memo outlining more details in advance of the August 11 meeting.

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