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Morgantown Council, county commission talk mask mandate

MORGANTOWN — Members of Morgantown City Council said they would like to conduct a special meeting on a number of COVID-19 related issues, including the possibility of implementing municipal fines to back up Gov. Jim Justice’s mandatory mask order.

Justice ordered masks be worn in all indoor spaces where proper social distancing cannot be maintained, starting July 7.

However, the order came with no enforcement component.

And the cases are climbing — particularly in Monongalia County, which is still on course  to see an influx of college students next month.

According to the Monongalia County Health Department, more than half of the state’s 110 new cases came out of Monongalia County on July 8. The state stands at 3,615 positive cases while Monongalia County jumped 67 cases, to 354.

“If we could mandate fines for not wearing masks, even if we had to do that on the city level, that would be helpful as well,” Councilor Barry Wendell said. “We are living in scary times.”

Councilors Zack Cruze and Dave Harshbarger both echoed a desire to put some teeth behind the mask requirement.

“We as a state and even as a city did more in the beginning, when we had very few cases than we’re actually doing now,” Cruze said, adding “I’d like to see gathering size restrictions put back in place. I would also like to see teeth put behind the masks … Especially since we’re seeing students getting ready to return.”

The question is can the city take such action.

When asked if the commission would consider trying to put penalties behind the mask order county-wide, Monongalia County Commission President Ed Hawkins said it’s not likely after speaking with MCHD Executive Director Lee Smith.

“We spoke to Dr. Smith about this very thing. There are prosecuting attorneys who have been consulted on this who have indicated it would be illegal to do so,” Hawkins said. “Now, did we consult our  prosecuting attorney? We did not. But that was what was shared among the health departments.”

Commissioner Tom Bloom said it is critical that the business community get behind the push to normalize masks before the return of WVU students and the start of the county school year, which looks like it could begin in early September.

“I would like to see something in the businesses. Signs that say, “No shirt. No shoes. No mask. No service,” Bloom said. “We talked about the fines, but after the conversation with Dr. Smith and talking to other counties, we aren’t able to do that. But we need the support of businesses. The masks need to the be the norm.”

And businesses need the support of the community, Morgantown Deputy Mayor Rachel Fetty said, noting a number of businesses were forced to close back down after staff members tested positive following the return of customers.

“This is a profoundly, profoundly frightening situation for a lot of the businesses in our community and I hope we’ll all join together to support them as much as we possibly can,” Fetty said. “The most supportive thing we can possibly do is wear our masks.”

Hawkins said that given the strain already being experienced by the MCHD, he doesn’t see how it could be involved in enforcing a city mandate.

“I don’t know how, even in the city could encumber itself with something like this, how would they enforce it,” Hawkins asked.

Commissioner Sean Sikora said masks are the component getting the most attention, but it’s also crucial that people continue to be mindful of social distancing and keeping their hands clean.

“Everybody keeps focusing on masks, but all of those other need to be paid attention to, too,” he said.

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