City council considers extending COVID-19 rules

Courtesy image: Jael Thorpe speaks to Brookings city councilors at the Tuesday first reading of an ordinance that, if approved, will extend COVID-19 restrictions in Brookings.

First reading draws criticism from public; 2nd reading Oct. 27

BROOKINGS – Brookings city councilors heard from the public about a proposed extension of COVID-19 regulations during a first reading at their meeting Tuesday. 

No vote was taken, and the second reading is set for Oct. 27.

Ordinance 20-028 is an emergency ordinance amending emergency Ordinance 20-010, to extend restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19. Ordinance 20-010 regulates bars, restaurants, salons and retail, requiring social distancing and capacity limits, and mandates face coverings for indoor businesses and indoor public spaces.

The current ordinance is set to expire Nov. 7. Brookings is in Phase 3 (moderate) of its COVID-19 reopening plan. 

Jael Thorpe questioned the council about the “ghosted ordinance” that was published in the original council agenda posting but was dropped Tuesday morning.

If passed, Ordinance 20-029 would have moved Brookings into Phase 2, which has more restrictive regulations than Phase 3, including the closure of bars, restaurants, salons, theaters, gyms, and other facilities. Brookings was in Phase 2 in March.

“I think people are just trying to catch up here and understand what is going on,” Thorpe said. “I feel we deserve an explanation for that.”

If such a restrictive ordinance is being considered, “we need to hear from you under what circumstances would you support a business lock-down? What data and metrics are you using that support locking down a local salon or restaurant but allowing Walmart and Hy-Vee to continue business as normal?” Thorpe asked.

She asked Mayor Keith Corbett to explain why the ordinance was not on the agenda.

“What was the process yesterday of throwing everyone in the community into a complete fit and then now, just not talking about it?” Thorpe asked.

Councilor Nick Wendell said the language of Ordinance 20-029 and the dates attached to it “caused a lot of concern.” He said the council has been having conversations about the phased approach since they introduced the four phases in early summer, made with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, South Dakota Department of Health and other experts.

“There are certain thresholds in place, when you cross these thresholds, you should move into the next phase,” Wendell said.

Brookings has been in Phase 3 for months and has triggered at least two of three thresholds that would indicate the city should move into Phase 2, he said.

Wendell said he initiated conversations with other councilors “to say, I think this first reading language is aggressive” and the council probably was not ready to pass such an ordinance.

“If we’re not actually taking it under consideration … then what would be the value of doing a first reading?” Wendell said.

Since a study session to hear from local professionals was already set (and took place earlier in Tuesday’s meeting), he felt the conversation was already taking place and stated that he was supportive of pulling Ordinance 20-029 off the agenda, “even though we have hit the thresholds that would indicate we should be considering a move to Phase 2.”

“I do feel like we’re in for a long couple of weeks and months and whatever action we take now needs to be sustainable,” Wendell said. “I don’t think a move to Phase 2 is sustainable for this community.”

Wendell said he reached out to the mayor Tuesday morning about pulling Ordinance 20-029.

Bradley Walker wanted the council to open the businesses up to 100% capacity, since the mask mandate is in place.

“Why aren’t businesses being allowed to open to 100% capacity if masks work?” he asked.

Elizabeth Wika wanted to know what happens behind the scenes when an ordinance is developed, asking if a majority of the council had to agree to it being on the agenda.

City Attorney Steve Britzman said the staff’s goal is to be ready in uncertain times. 

“It appeared that we needed to have a couple of options,” he said. “It does take a fair amount of time and effort to draft that type of ordinance (and update it to reflect current circumstances).”

“I would take the responsibility of initiating the drafting of that ordinance,” Britzman said, adding it doesn’t bother him to have it removed. “At least we’re prepared as part of the planning to be ready.”

City manager Paul Briseno said he, the city attorney and City Clerk Bonnie Foster work together as a team to create the documents and the language in them.

“The city council, city manager, mayor, under the advice of staff, can add any items to the council. Usually it’s placed on an agenda with consent or majority of the council,” Foster said.

Ordinances are not drafted in one uniform way, Councilor Holly Tilton Byrne added. Language can be developed by council, city attorney or staff, and items may be added by councilors or staff members, according to their areas of expertise.

“As a person of principle, I feel weary of the narrative that I hear when we come to the meetings,” Kyra Wurm said. “What we hear every week is doom and gloom and we all know that we can take those statistics and we can spin them any way we like.”

“It feels like manipulation when we have ordinances like 20-029 thrown out there and pulled back,” Wurm said. “It seems like a lot of politics happening behind the scenes.”

She felt Ordinance 20-028, extending the regulations currently in place, puts police in a terrible position because it’s too hard to enforce.

Wurm also didn’t like the language in Ordinance 20-028, saying it seems to give the council “the immediate ability to add other things in place as deemed necessary in an emergency capacity.”

Teresa Holloman lives in Aurora but has a business in Brookings. She said she might not be able to stay in business much longer.

“We’ve lost a lot of our shoppers … because they don’t want to mess with the masks,” she said. “So they’re taking their business elsewhere.”

She said she has other sources of income, but “what I need my business to do is support itself right now.” She’s having trouble paying rent and other expenses but mentioned she doesn’t sell online.

“I don’t want to close; I don’t want to leave, but I will tell you this. I’m not gonna put up with what’s going on here for another six months to a year. I will pack up my business and I will take it somewhere else,” Holloman said.

Council comments

Wendell said the council will continue to engage with community members.

“There’s this narrative that there are only one of two options we can take: either this extreme, which is that we do a shutdown and a lockdown and it’s our only option to keep everyone safe, or on this extreme, we just swing the doors open and we lift all restrictions and let COVID just run its course,” he said. “We know that there are some middle options.”

He thinks Ordinance 20-028 is representative of “the middle-of-the-road approach.”

Encourage masks and 50% occupancy in businesses; cooperate with the school district to keep students and staff safe and not move to remote learning, which is a challenging environment for students; partner with South Dakota State University to keep its students and staff safe.

“The majority of community members that I hear from are pretty satisfied with the middle-of-the-road compromise,” Wendell said.

Councilor Leah Brink said a couple of things hit home for her, especially being weary.

“I know that applies to all of you, but believe me, it applies to all of us as well,” she said. 

Addressing how the council frames “everything in the worst possible way”; people respond better when things are framed positively, and the council needs to work on that, she said.

She said she gets frustrated because she can’t see what they’re doing is having an effect.

“Everyone is doing their best and I know everybody has good intentions; we just don’t have the same ideas about how to get there,” Brink said. “I do believe that individual actions are going to be the most effective at fighting this thing.”

Councilor Joey Collins said he wants to stop the regulations all together and turn them into guidelines. 

“This isn’t going away … It’s gonna be here for a very long time,” Collins said. “I think if we did stop everything, I think people would still continue to do what they’re doing now. Obviously, high-risk people, take care of yourselves.”

If people are wearing masks, “let’s open up 100%, so our businesses can get back to where they need to be,” Collins said.

“I think the mask mandate has helped us get through what could have been somewhat of a disaster,” Councilor Ope Niemeyer said.

“I don’t want to see any of you leave Brookings. I don’t want to see anybody get buried 6 feet under,” he said.

“So as a city council, we’re trying to figure out how to best help keep the safety of our community,” Niemeyer said. “The city council has a responsibility to set some set of guidelines to go by and then, after that, we have to work with it.”

He wants to hear from small businesses.

Having 11,000 students going to SDSU for an education and spending money in town, “think about how many businesses would not be going by now if the students hadn’t even come back,” Niemeyer said.

“We need to find a sense of community again and find a common ground and try to be able to work with each other. I don’t know how else to say it,” Niemeyer said.

Tilton Byrne reminded everyone that the councilors are members of the community, too, and trying to do what’s best for the community during a hard time with the information on hand.

“There’s no playbook that tells us how to respond to a pandemic, so we’re working through it as best we can,” she said.

They do want input from the public and they do need to work through information. Sometimes it gets messy, but that’s part of the democratic process. 

Contact Jodelle Greiner at [email protected]

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