City council approves COVID rules extension

Courtesy image: Kevin Grunewaldt speaks at Wednesday’s Brookings City Council meeting, about proposed changes to the city’s current COVID-19 restrictions on businesses. The current restrictions were extended for another 60 days, by a 6-1 vote of the council. Mask mandates are still being considered by the council, with a first reading held Wednesday and a second reading and possible action planned for Sept. 8. Proposed changes of restricting social gatherings of more than 10 people in residences and prohibiting alcohol sales from 10 p.m.-7 a.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday were both shot down this week.

Council to consider mask mandates next week; two other amendments removed

BROOKINGS – The Brookings City Council extended existing COVID-19 restrictions on businesses for another 60 days, during a three-and-a-half hour long meeting that had audience members applauding every few minutes, yelling over speakers and jeering at those they disagreed with, including councilors. 

The council passed Ordinance 20-017 by a 6-1 vote Wednesday, with Councilor Joey Collins the dissenting vote. It regulates businesses such as bars, restaurants and salons in areas including social distancing, occupancy and masks.

The council also heard a first reading on Ordinance 20-019, striking two amendments, but letting two stand. The council struck the two amendments restricting social gatherings of more than 10 people in residences and prohibiting alcohol sales from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The second reading, which includes two mask mandates, is set for Sept. 8.

The council later killed an emergency resolution that would have allowed the mask mandates to take effect immediately.

Amendments up for consideration next week would require masks at city-sanctioned events and require masks in indoor businesses and indoor public places where 6-foot social distancing cannot be achieved or maintained.

Ordinance 20-017

Brookings is in Phase 3 of the COVID plan, and the existing guidelines have been triggered with the exception of hospitalizations, City Manager Paul Briseno said.

The ordinance extends the current ordinance that is set to expire on Sept. 8.

“As of Monday, the seven-day positive rate is 34%. The desired rate is 5%. … This past week there have been substantial increases (of cases),” according to a memo by Briseno that was attached to the agenda. 

“At the last City Council meeting, thresholds and metrics were provided as guidance for Council and the public of existing conditions. This information is provided by local professionals and weighs metrics such as test positive rates, health care capacity, testing scope and capacity. As of the last report the only metric met was the capacity of hospitalization available,” according to Briseno’s memo.

 

Public comments

Kevin Grunewaldt, owner of Grunewaldt Properties, asked if the council is affected by this ordinance.

“You all have full paychecks; not all of these people do. … Do you guys understand the full weight of your decisions?” Grunewaldt asked.

He said if the council puts restrictions on businesses, “the people will not go; they wouldn’t go to these places.”

He’s talked to college students.

“Some college students are just not here for academic reasons; they’re just here for the excitement of college: freedom, fun and friends. Good luck trying to regulate those hormones,” he said to hoots, yells and applause.

Do you want to risk a lawsuit, Grunewaldt asked.

“When is enough enough?” he asked.

Sarah Wilson started an online petition, which had more than 1,779 signatures.

“The online petition urges council to allow Ordinance 20-017 to expire and to not adopt any of the new restrictions and resolutions,” Wilson said.

She said last month, she tested positive for COVID-19 “and like 80% of the cases, I had a very mild reaction.” She closed a corporate office she manages and the small business she owns and went into quarantine.

“You could never have a full understanding of what it takes for a business to cut capacity and revenue to 50%,” she said.

“Option is the key word here. Every citizen, including our part-time citizens, aka those college students, have the option to go out and risk COVID,” Wilson said. 

She said she trusts her fellow citizens to make the right decision for them and doesn’t feel she has the right to make that decision for them.

“Just as you as members of the city council have no business making those decisions for me or my family,” Wilson said.

Limiting the university students’ freedoms will not make them fall in love in Brookings and want to stay, she said.

“I hope that the students are paying attention, and I hope that the ones that decide to stay in Brookings are running for some of your seats next year,” Wilson said.

“President (Barry) Dunn will ultimately be liable for the policies he makes on campus and drives students away, but the city council should not,” Wilson said.

She said not everyone who asks for a COVID test gets one.

Jael Thorpe said there were approximately 250 people at the meeting, many wearing red shirts to show their opposition to the ordinance extension and proposed amendments, because “they have not felt heard over the last several months.”

Other cities have lifted their restrictions, but Brookings has continued to leave them in place, even though the local hospitalizations total six, Thorpe said.

“I do not understand why we are even all here tonight,” she said.

Brennan Sullivan, owner of Sully’s Irish Pub, wondered how stopping alcohol sales at 10 p.m. would protect anyone, saying people would just go to someone’s house to drink.

Dr. Natalie Thiex, an epidemiologist, is part of the team that reviews weekly data and makes recommendations to the city of Brookings based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization. She supported the ordinance and recommended the adoption of emergency resolutions.

“There’s always a tenuous balance between public health and personal liberty,” she said. “Drastic times call for drastic measures.”

“Our county currently has one of the highest per capita active infection levels in the country, and in the world for that matter,” Thiex said.

The crowd groaned and yelled at her words.

“In the last seven days, we have had 75 new cases, which is well into both the federal and state red zones,” she said.

“At the rate we are going … the exponential increase in cases is going to out-pace our ability to respond,” Thiex said. “I see the current proposed measures as a middle ground, basically kind of a last-ditch effort to see if we can slow the transmission of this virus.”

She read the case fatality ratios for South Dakota to date; it’s a measure of the percent of people who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and died from it. It’s calculated by dividing the number of deaths over the number of people diagnosed.

For South Dakota, as of Tuesday, in the 20-29 age group, .1% of people who were diagnosed died, so that’s one death in 1,000 cases. In the 30-39 age group, the case fatality rate is .3% – one death in 333 cases. In the 40-49 age group, the case fatality is 0.4%, one death in 250 cases. In the 50-59 age group, the case fatality ratio is 1.2%, one death in 83 cases. In the 60-69 group, it’s 3%, one death in 33 cases. In the 70-79 age group, it’s 6.3%, one death in 16 cases. 

“And for people in their 80s, it’s 22.5%, that’s one death in 4.5 cases,” Thiex said.

“Those are risks that we don’t take on a normal, daily basis,” she said.

Some people talked about how appalled they were the council would seek to surrender the citizens’ Constitutionally guaranteed freedoms. Others said parents are already checking on their children, the council doesn’t need to do it. Even if their children got COVID and died, they said there are other viruses out there that could kill them, too.

Carla Dieter, RN, asked how many of the people who died in Brookings County had preexisting conditions.

“Did they die of COVID or did they die with COVID and pre-existing conditions,” Dieter asked. “Healthy people are not that at risk.”

Dieter said the council was “putting the police at risk” with enforcing the ordinance and the proposed amendments. 

“When it comes to public health, the city of Brookings and the university are one,” said Barry Dunn, president of South Dakota State University. Most of SDSU’s employees call Brookings home; for much of the year, so do the 12,000 students.

The five north central states are the hottest COVID spots in the U.S. right now, Dunn said. 

The city’s ordinances have helped SDSU re-open, but COVID is increasing, so SDSU supports extending the restrictions and asked the council to consider the amendments, so they can keep the students and the employees on campus, Dunn added.

Dr. Rebecca Vande Kop, said she “is living and breathing this every day … Right now, we’re terrified, to be honest.”

“Healthy people are having long-term effects,” she said, adding people are having adverse effects three months after COVID. She talked about memory loss, heart and lung damage.

She predicted more deaths, including youngsters.

“What is the number of deaths that is acceptable to you, because that’s what we’re looking at?” she asked.

Council comments

Councilor Nick Wendell appreciated the level of engagement of the community on this issue; the council received hundreds of emails, texts and phone calls.

He said the council has asked a lot of questions of hospital professionals.

“Lifting the restrictions would put us at greater risk,” Wendell said, adding the country has faced devasting effects when precautions were not kept in place. “Wearing masks work.” 

Wendell was interrupted by people in the audience. One man demanded to know when the council would have the next meeting, based on hospitalizations. Wendell said he didn’t know. The council would make the decision based on metrics from various sources.

Councilor Patty Bacon was booed when she said there were people who had come to the meeting and left “because they weren’t being respected.”

“Can I have the respect that we’ve given you tonight for you to listen? I think we also deserve respect,” Bacon said.

One man yelled, “Where are they?”

One man commented on all the information the council had and asked when they were going to start displaying it.

Wendell said the information was available on the attachments to the agenda.

“You guys look silly with those diapers on your heads up there,” the man said.

Councilor Ope Niemeyer planned to vote to extend the restrictions, but wasn’t in favor of the amendments.

“If this is the mentality that we’ve got out here, it’s gonna be hard for our police officers to enforce and I don’t want to put them in that situation,” Niemeyer said.

Councilor Leah Brink said it would be helpful if people would be respectful. 

“There are no good solutions here,” Brink said, adding a decision can help some, but harm others.

“I do not believe that COVID is a hoax … I am not some uneducated buffoon up here, just trying to have a good time playing at city council,” Brink said.

“What I don’t want to see happen is that this council is compelled to shut down the entire town again,” Brink said.

She said the council’s common email had 125 emails from people who wanted the council to create more restrictions, as opposed to about 75 which were highly against the restrictions.

Councilor Joey Collins said he had fought in a war for people’s rights. “I’m not going to take away your rights,” he said.

Councilor Holly Tilton Byrne said the council was hearing a lot of opinions.

“We as a council have to try and balance all of those opinions, along with the data and information,” Tilton Byrne said, adding they are getting “critical” advice from state department of health, experts from Avera, Sanford and Brookings Health System, and multiple epidemiologists. 

She wants to implement policies to keep the community open.

“Because as we know, this community has to be able to function in order for our economy to be able to function,” she said, adding if the council didn’t take action, they might be faced with taking more drastic action in the near future.

Contact Jodelle Greiner at [email protected]

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