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The Fayetteville City Council unanimously approved an ordinance Tuesday that mandated the wearing of masks in most public places as a way to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The ordinance requires businesses to provide masks for customers for free or minimal costs. The council included $100,000 in the ordinance for the mask campaign, which includes distributing free masks to city businesses.
The mandate has some exceptions and no specific penalties for an individual’s failure to comply, other than being denied entry into the public place. Businesses could face up to a $500 fine for failure to enforce the mandate if their failure was because of “willful neglect.”
Fayetteville Mayor Lioneld Jordan posted a message on his Facebook page — and a photo of him wearing a mask — that praised the council’s courage in passing the ordinance. He posted a letter to city business owners on the city’s website.
“This ordinance will protect our residents, families, and friends, and ultimately save lives,” Jordan wrote. “Our top priority as elected officials is to keep our community safe. And, your top priority is to keep yourselves and others safe, so MASK UP!!!”
The ordinance immediately raised questions from the Fayetteville business community and drew criticism from Gov. Asa Hutchinson. Hutchinson addressed the ordinance during his Wednesday COVID-19 news conference and said he hoped cities wouldn’t “take that step.”
“I understand where their heart is,” Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson said he prefers the use of education, self-discipline and leadership to encourage people to follow the “right health protocols.” He said he doesn’t want 50 different cities with 50 different mask ordinances. But Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. said Wednesday he would push for the city’s board to draft a similar ordinance.
Hutchinson said there was “conflict” between Fayetteville’s ordinance and the executive orders he had issued. Fayetteville City Attorney Kit Williams said, before the council voted, that he was worried the ordinance would be “invalid” because of such a conflict.
Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce President Steve Clark said several businesses have reached out wanting more information about the ordinance. He said there are many questions left unanswered by the ordinance’s language that include:
- Are children 10 and under exempt”
- What health conditions are exempt?
- Is asking non-mask wearers their health condition a privacy violation?
Clark said the chamber strongly encourages mask use by people and businesses. He said the chamber was “1,000%” supportive of an idea pushed by Councilwoman Teresa Turk and Jordan that city officials go door-to-door to businesses to distribute masks and encourage them to enforce mask-only entry.
“They decided they weren’t interested in that,” Clark said. “Cities are creatures of the state. The city attorney said it very well: the city of Fayetteville doesn’t have the authority to do this. The city council did it anyway.
“There will be a challenge from the state. The defense that it is the right thing to do won’t stand up in a courtroom.”
Clark said, given human nature, there was the possibility of a negative effect from mandates such as the Fayetteville ordinances. Many people would be happy to wear masks, Clark said, unless the government tells them they have to.
“We have had a couple of calls from people saying, ‘I cannot be told to do this,’ ” Clark said. “I call that the ‘Watch this syndrome.’ I can’t do this? Well, watch this.”