The Petersburg Borough is giving away masks made by volunteer sewers. People can fill out a form to receive free masks here. (Photo by Angela Denning/KFSK)

Petersburg Borough Assembly decided not to extend the mandate requiring facial coverings at a meeting Monday. The mandate went into effect April 20 and expires at the end of the day May 5. As Angela Denning reports, the assembly did start moving forward with a new ordinance to allow mail-in only ballots for this October’s municipal election.

Petersburg’s borough assembly, through teleconference, considered extending a mandate that required some kind of facial covering when people cannot social distance from non-household members. The assembly received a few letters from the public but nowhere near the number of responses as it did when the issue first came up in April. Back then over 50 people voiced their opinion, about half were for the mandate and half against it.

This time, the borough’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) did NOT recommend extending the mandate. Karl Hagerman is the E.O.C.’s Incident Commander and he’s been working on COVID-19 responses in Petersburg.

He told assembly that although he’d like to see masking continue, the mandate was pitting residents against one another: those who want facial coverings and those who believe it threatens their personal rights.

“The divisiveness between neighbors is at an all-time high,” Hagerman said. “The last thing we want to see is people fighting each other over masking or in fact goading each other or having close contact arguments over this issue.”

Hagerman reminded the assembly that the borough still has to follow the state’s Mandate 16, which requires face coverings for many reasons. That includes employees and customers in most businesses as well as people at home during mixed household gatherings. The state’s mandate carries $1,000 fines for each violation but Hagerman says there is no way for local police to enforce a similar, local mandate.

“We have likely reached the saturation of who will wear a face covering without some sort of punitive action,” he said. “If we go down that road, we will further set off the population and may drive more people to reject the masking due to their objections to our perceived overreach.”

Borough Manager, Steve Giesbrecht, told assembly members that there continues to be low compliance in the harbors for people wearing facial coverings. The borough expects this to get worse as more transient and tour boats come to town this summer. Giesbrecht says the harbor staff will meet with the Incident Command team to figure out what to do.

When the mandate went to a vote, nobody on assembly made a motion to discuss the issue further so it automatically expired.

However, later on in the meeting, several assembly members talked about masking anyway. They encouraged residents to follow the state mandate, which requires facial coverings in many scenarios.

“Go to the state’s website and borough website and pay close attention to the mandates that come down from the state,” said Jeigh Stanton Gregor.

“If you want a business to be open, you need to be wearing a face covering as you participate in that business, basically,” Chelsea Tremblay said. “There are a few exceptions but I encourage people to read through those details.”

“I still think you should wear a mask even if you don’t want to,” said Taylor Norheim. “But that will be your choice…kind of…You need to, again, read what’s going on from the state.”

Also at the meeting, the assembly considered a new ordinance allowing the October 1 municipal election to be done by mail-only ballots instead of at a public polling place. The ordinance states an election by mail would ensure the rights of voters are protected as well as public health and safety is met. The ordinance states that the pandemic could continue for months requiring social distancing and the avoidance of public gatherings.

If the ordinance is approved, the borough clerk would mail ballots to everyone whose name is on the voter registration list as well as a privacy envelope for returning the ballot. Voters can either mail it back to the borough at their expense or drop it off at a secure box that will be identified later.

Assembly passed the ordinance in its first reading. It will be considered two more times before becoming law.