City To Let Mask Mandate Expire

Speaking remotely, Dr. Mary Milroy of the Yankton Health Board discusses the board’s decision to not recommend an extension of the city’s mask mandate during Monday night’s Yankton City Commission meeting. Mayor Nathan Johnson is shown listening in during the presentation.

The Yankton City Commission seemed poised to extend the municipal mask ordinance when the board held its first reading on an extension just two weeks ago.

But after Monday night’s meeting of the commission, the ordinance will sunset on its original March 1 limit. The decision came after the City Health Board, citing new metrics and a rapidly improving situation, recommended that the city allow the mandate to expire.

Yankton City Manager and Health Board member Amy Leon said the board met last week to discuss three metrics to keep an eye on for lifting the masking ordinance: a vaccination rate of 50%, active cases below 25 for three consecutive weeks and COVID-19 hospitalizations at Avera Sacred Heart Hospital at three or less for three consecutive weeks. So far, the city is only succeeding on the hospitalizations criteria.

“They’re not perfect metrics,” Leon said. “We knew that before we farmed them out to our medical professionals.”

She said that the board got a mix of reactions from health professionals on the criteria before they looked at what other communities are doing now.

“There are a number of communities in South Dakota that either had ordinances, resolutions or recommendations on masking,” Leon said. “Just like the metrics and just like we found here in Yankton, what’s become of those is different. For example, our friends in Mitchell had an ordinance. That expired, I believe, on (Jan. 27). There’s discussion occurring this week in Sioux Falls as to what they’re going to do with their masking ordinance. … Vermillion is one of those that extended theirs a couple of weeks and they’re going to revisit. There’s no hard and fast rule on that, either.”

Leon added that most people have already made up their minds as to whether or not they’ll wear a mask.

“We also believe, as a health board, that we don’t think that the continuation of an ordinance will necessarily get more people to wear masks or get more people to comply,” she said. “We think people will make that choice.”

Considering all these factors, she said the Health Board unanimously had a simple recommendation: let the mask ordinance sunset at the end of the month.

“People can still continue to, and probably should continue to, wear masks,” she said. “No one on the Health Board is an anti-masker or an anti-vaxxer.”

Health Board member Dr. Mary Milroy said the city’s masking ordinance and those who stepped up and followed it put the city in a much better position than it was in December.

“Those efforts have led to the improvement in the picture that we’re sitting in right now where our numbers are better, our hospital is not bursting at the seams ad being on the edge of transferring patients out because we have no more capacity in town,” Milroy said. “We’ve given some of our health care providers a little breather here. We are in a more favorable position and that led us to look at letting the (ordinance) expire because it’s been very contentious in looking at the overall health of the community.”

However, she said that masking is still essential to keep numbers low as the vaccine rollout continues to pick up pace.

“It’s still vitally important to mask, do social distancing, avoid crowds, (use) careful hygiene and take the vaccine as soon as you’re eligible,” she said. “There’s still enough unknowns with variants and uncertain vaccine supplies at times that we don’t have all the answers now.”

The Health Board will continue to meet weekly and provide updates at regular City Commission meetings for the duration.

According to City Attorney Ross Den Herder, the ordinance could be reintroduced for a second reading if it’s deemed necessary in the future.

“I’m of the opinion —particularly since there isn’t an enforcement mechanism contained within it — if all we’re doing is changing the sunset date, I think we could do that with a single second reading,” Den Herder said. “You can pull this one out, blow the dust off of it and push it through in a single meeting if you needed to.”

Commissioner Amy Miner, who had been a proponent of the mask ordinance, said she was comfortable with letting the ordinance expire March 1 due to a rapidly changing situation.

“We didn’t have a vaccine metric when we were making these decisions in November — there was no such thing,” Miner said. “It’s pretty impressive to have 11% of our population already with two doses.”

No commissioners introduced a resolution favoring or opposing holding the second reading Monday, which allows the current ordinance to expire.

Monday’s meeting was a far cry from the December meeting that implemented the mask ordinance. Though the ordinance didn’t have an enforcement mechanism, similar to the ordinance passed in Sioux Falls around the same time, concerns about a large crowd caused the City Commission to schedule the meeting for the ordinance’s second reading at the Yankton High School theatre. Though avoiding the boisterousness of similar meetings held elsewhere, a decently sized crowd turned out, a number of them spoke and several YouTube comments were read.

By contrast, Monday’s meeting saw a single audience member — former city commissioner and current board candidate Curt Bernard — appear before the commission to thank the health board and speak out generally against the mask ordinance and lockdowns. No YouTube comments were recorded Monday evening.

A resolution promoting the use of masks, following CDC guidelines and following proper hygiene procedures that was passed last April remains in effect.

In other business Monday, the commission:

• Approved alcohol sales on Christmas Day;

• Approved application for a community development block grant for Pathways Shelter for the Homeless;

• Approved various equipment purchases;

• Held a work session with Bill Efting to discuss legalization of marijuana.

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