Banners like were erected around downtown Petersburg in April. The image was created by local artist, Doris Olsen. (Image courtesy of Petersburg’s Emergency Operations Center)

Petersburg Borough Assembly Monday night passed a mandate requiring people to wear facial coverings when they can’t social distance from non-household members. As KFSK’s Angela Denning reports, the assembly members were on both sides of the issue and so were residents.

Over 50 letters from the public streamed into the borough clerk’s office before the meeting, about half in favor and half opposed.

The mandate requires people to cover their mouth and nose inside open public buildings like the grocery store and post office, inside closed buildings with others like co-workers, and outside on busy sidewalks and parking lots.

The mandate, which is in effect until May 5, does not apply to children under two or those with breathing problems.

Resident, Rob Schwartz, voiced his opposition at the meeting, which was all teleconference. He suggested “herd immunization” where the majority of people get the virus and get immune to it, and therefore protect the vulnerable population.

“I’m willing to step up and volunteer just like they did in World War II and go forward and defeat this thing,” Schwartz said. “Give me the virus; I’m willing to take it.”

Several residents wrote letters stating that the mandate interfered with their personal rights and freedom.

Katie Eddy wrote that the mandate “is too restrictive, unrealistic and surpasses the risk in Petersburg.”

The Van Swearingen family said they “do not believe that any government should tell people what they must wear when they are outside.”

Ambre Burrell said she found it “appalling” that the borough was considering mandates when the President and Governor were talking about opening up the economy.

The Coonrad family called the proposed mandate “the very definition of government overreach”.

And three assembly members agreed that the mandate was not good for the community.

Assembly member, Brandi Marohl, said the community was practicing safe behavior already.

“There’s just so many advisories and mandates and I think people are trying to do the best,” Marohl said. “I think we need to trust our community and I just think this is a complete overreach.”

Assembly member Taylor Norheim agreed.He suggested leaving it up to the businesses to require masks. 

 “Couldn’t they do that themselves instead of putting this weird kind of the government says you must do this,” Norheim said. “Why not just say, ‘Hey, we care about you as one of your business providers, you need to wear a mask when you come in this store.’”

Mayor Mark Jensen said he didn’t think the mandate would change some people’s behavior.

“I think the public is doing a pretty good job of being responsible and trying to go by just the request of wearing masks when you’re in public,” he said.

However, other residents spoke in favor of the mandate.

Resident, Ed Wood, said that it would be nice, quote: “if others respected my right to not be infected.”

Grace Wolf wrote, “I support taking personal responsibility of my own germs.”

The Petersburg Medical Center backed the mandate. CEO Phil Hofstetter said the knowledge of the virus has changed.

“The spread of the virus is what’s changed,” Hofstetter said, “and the way that people can be asymptomatic and spread the virus is really the driving force behind masking.”

Three assembly members spoke in favor of the mandate saying they supported the health care workers.

“What I’m struck by is the medical community including the CDC and our State Department of Health and Human Services all saying masks are a good idea,” said Jeigh Stanton Gregor said.

 “When the people responsible for managing our emergency response are telling us that this is an urgent thing for people to do, and to take responsibility in, then I believe it’s on us as an assembly to listen to that recommendation,” Chelsea Tremblay said.

“They’re on the front lines, they’re giving us advice that some people don’t like but, you know, I have to trust them. I have to,” said Jeff Meucci.

Assembly member Bob Lynn did not speak strongly one way or the other but ended up casting the deciding ‘yes’ vote.

The mandate is written broadly so that any face covering could work not just traditional masks.There’s a potential $500 fine attached to it but borough officials said they’re looking to educate people first.

The assembly unanimously passed two other proposed mandates at the meeting, which got little feedback from the public.

A cruise ship mandate does not allow vessels of 25 passengers or more to use the harbor facilities unless they first get approval from the Borough Public Health Officer, Dr. Mark Tuccillo. He would decide if and when to screen passengers for Covid-19.

A business travel mandate would require businesses that are intending to bring essential workers into the borough to submit plans to the borough detailing how they would prevent the spread of the coronavirus.