Mandatory Mask Area in Downtown Made Official

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Gary Caldwell for ELi

The "stay safe to stay open" campaign urges mask-wearing. Now it's also mandatory downtown.

East Lansing’s City Council has unanimously affirmed Policy Resolution 2020-05, mandating that all persons on public property within the boundaries of the Downtown Development Authority District wear masks.

“This is a small ask,” Mayor Aaron Stephens said at Tuesday’s meeting when discussing the order. “This isn’t something that is radical. This isn’t something that is outlandish. This is something necessary to keep people safe.”

City Manager George Lahanas had proposed the idea at the July 29 City Council meeting. He stated that the mayor could declare a local State of Emergency through the recently passed local Ordinance 1488 and make special rules and regulations to accompany the order.

Stephens made the declaration on August 7, and, as required, Council voted to affirm the order and its conditions within seven days.

Two people spoke about the proposed order during public comment – one for and one against.

Steven Roskos, a physician in MSU’s Department of Family Medicine, questioned the necessity of declaring a State of Emergency and a mask mandate.

“March was a more sensible time to declare,” he said. “Look around, Covid is not as prevalent or dangerous as initially thought.”

He cited low local numbers for hospitalizations and active cases as evidence against the measure and called for more open debate – something he believed an emergency order did not permit.

While acknowledging that Covid-19 could be transmitted outdoors, he called that occurrence “rare.” He said the order seemed to be an “excessive restriction of freedom based on the threat of Covid,” and suggested it might negatively impact downtown businesses.

Courtesy City of East Lansing

Map of the East Lansing DDA district.

A woman who identified herself as “Rochelle” then called in to respond to Roskos. Rochelle explained that she suffers severe inflammation from a virus she contracted a year before the pandemic, leaving her disabled. She said she had not left her home since the public health emergency began.

“It’s very frustrating to feel that everyone thinks that their rights and freedoms are being infringed upon by being asked to wear a mask. If more people would, I could leave my house more,” she stated.

When Council addressed the order – it was the last item on the agenda for a meeting than ran to 11:59 p.m. – all members expressed their support.

Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg spoke first, describing her initial support of a mask mandate as “fairly lukewarm.” Gregg owns a fabric store downtown, and says her tune had changed following conversations between the City and MSU. On campus, students must wear masks both indoors and outdoors, and Gregg thinks it would be beneficial to have continuity of mask wearing across Grand River Ave. to create a general mask-wearing culture.

“I think there is a great benefit to having a culture of containment as MSU students arrive back in town,” she said. “We should start as we mean to go on.”

Council member Lisa Babcock followed those remarks, opening with her endorsement of the measure since keeping six feet of distance would be difficult downtown.

“Most people are willing to do the right thing,” she stated. “But, there will be people for whom we require a law. For that reason, we are going to do a law.”

Speaking at his first meeting, Council member Ron Bacon said he sees the order as a sign of support for frontline health care workers and first responders.

“Adding those type of numbers in rapid succession could easily overrun our healthcare system if we had another outbreak,” he explained.

New Council member Dana Watson, who works with the Ingham County Health Department, admitted that she does not enjoy wearing a mask, but supported the measure as a necessary public health measure since she “remembers how crowded it get when students return.”

During a presentation earlier in the meeting, City Manager George Lahanas laid out how the mask ordinance would fit into the City’s larger plans for Covid-19 response as MSU students prepare to return.

Working with MSU, the Ingham County Health Department, and the Responsible Hospitality Committee (HRC), the City will implement measures to promote both safety and local businesses.

Through the “We Have You Covered” campaign, ambassadors wearing MSU-branded shirts with the slogan “Together We Will. Stay Safe to Stay Open” will approach those without masks to speak to them about the importance of masking and to provide free masks.

The hope is to educate people and avoid punitive measures – including having police issue a $25 fine for violators included in the order. Police officers will be in the downtown area should an ambassador face threats of violence or other issues.

Lahanas said that the City has provided toolkits to over 65 entities that provide housing to students. When asked, he could not confirm that the materials included information on size limitations for indoor gatherings. The Ingham County Health Department is said to be looking into what it can do about limiting house party size.

To support businesses, the City also plans to increase its capacity for outdoor seating and shopping and for curbside pickup.

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