Council OKs COVID rules change

This screenshot of the Tuesday Brookings City Council meeting broadcast shows Dr. Richard Hieb speaking to the council the COVID-19 pandemic.

Council retains mask mandate, drops some business restrictions

BROOKINGS – The Brookings City Council unanimously approved Ordinance 21-013 on Tuesday, keeping the COVID-19 mask mandate in place but loosening restrictions on businesses. 

Councilors heard from some people who wanted all restrictions lifted and others who advised caution. 

Doctors praised local health care workers and asked to keep the mask mandate in place to help the frontline workers.

Ordinance 21-013 will take effect upon publication, which will be Friday, City Clerk Bonnie Foster said. It will expire April 30.

The council considered two other options this week: Ordinance 21-012, which would have kept all the COVID rules in place, but died for lack of a motion to approve; and Resolution 21-024, which would have dropped all restrictions in favor of making them guidelines, but was instead tabled until April 27.

End restrictions

Jeanette Gibbons believes in individual rights and freedoms.

“We do not have a pandemic, or we do have one, but it’s not COVID-19. It’s corruption from the highest levels,” Gibbons said.

She said people have the right to decide whether to wear masks and how to run their own businesses.

Bradley Walker wanted the council to pass the resolution and end all the restrictions.

“You continue to use fear and emotion to try and persuade people to follow your narrative,” Walker said.

He referenced the more than 30 local people who have died from COVID and said, “I would say the death of one business is too many.”

He accused the council of using emotion to ask people to think about others they “are responsible for.”

“I am not responsible for anyone’s health, just as they are not responsible for mine. You can’t spread something you don’t have,” Walker said.

Keep community safe

Cole Sartell thanked the councilors for what they have done to keep the community safe and for their dedication to science and fact. He’s in favor of removing the capacity limits on businesses, but wants to keep the mask mandate in effect, at least into May.

“If you really want to make a difference for our community, if you really want to help out small businesses, you want to help people get back to normal, you’re gonna wear a mask. You’re gonna do everything you can to keep your community safe, so we don’t have to keep these stupid things on our face any more. Cause I’m just as sick of it as everybody else is. So we have to do this together,” Sartell said.

Rick Hieb, retired medical doctor, said it was a tough issue that had brought a lot of division and questions.

Some people feel it’s an infringement of individual rights, “but society has rights, as well, and when somebody does something that doesn’t harm them but harms someone else, that’s a problem,” Hieb said.

Hieb said we need to bide our time for one more month and get high-risk people vaccinated.

“I’m anxious to get rid of the masks. I’ve been wearing masks for years – no more so than this last year – and no, it hasn’t killed me, and I haven’t developed lung disease,” Hieb said, referencing myths about the effects of masks. “There’s a lot of stuff out there that I’m tired of hearing.”

“A lot of our health care people are getting really burned out. And if you want to talk about stress – I understand there’s stress in the business community, but there’s a whole lot of stress in the health care community right now,” Hieb said. 

“They are feeling that there’s a segment that doesn’t care about what they do or about their efforts to help the public,” Hieb said.

Council comments

Councilor Joey Collins said he was more in favor of suggestions, not mandates.

“I don’t think we can look at businesses and say, ‘well, it’s just a business,’” Collins said. “The economic impact is pretty huge here in Brookings.”

The council has to consider the families who have lost income, as well as the ones who have lost loved ones. 

“I get both sides of it,” Collins said.

People who want to wear the masks will still wear the masks, and a large percentage of the high-risk population has been vaccinated, he said.

“I just think we have to take a look at everybody. … People are gonna do what they’re gonna do,” Collins said.

Councilor Leah Brink asked epidemiologist Dr. Bonny Specker how Brookings County compared to other South Dakota counties that didn’t have mandates.

Brookings County has the lowest overall rate of COVID cases now, compared to the counties with the 10 most populous cities, Specker said. At the time the mask mandate went into effect, Brookings County was in the middle of the pack.

During November, when the state recorded a high peak, “we stayed at the lowest level and we currently have the lowest number of cases overall per population size,” she said.

Brink asked if that was in part due to Brookings County’s demographics being younger due to South Dakota State University.

“The 20-29 year age group, which is what you see at the university, actually has the highest infection rate of all age groups in the state, so it would have given us more cases,” Specker said.

Those who die from it tend to be those with underlying risk factors, and younger people don’t get as severely sick from COVID, Brink said.

That has no bearing on whether a person tests positive for COVID, Specker said.

She mentioned that many of the “long-haulers” – those who have had COVID but are having a difficult time getting back their complete health – are those in their younger years, including the 20-29 age group.

COVID not the flu

Patty Dexter asked Specker about whether COVID cases have been confused with the flu.

“These are cases that have been confirmed through tests, molecular testing,” Specker said, adding there are significant differences between COVID, the flu, and the common cold. “This is not the cold, and it’s not the flu.”

Dexter said she thinks the pandemic is phony and built on fear.

“When this started, we tested everyone for COVID and influenza because we knew that they looked similar in many cases,” Hieb said. 

“Now these tests are very specific: COVID is COVID and nothing else; Influenza A and B is Influenza A and B and nothing else. And we have other specific tests. So when we get a positive, we know what it is,” Hieb said.

“Interestingly enough, in South Dakota this year, influenza has been virtually non-existent,” he said.

Two or three weeks ago, “at the peak of influenza season, the State of South Dakota had 69 confirmed cases in the state,” he said. “Usually, we have about 1,200 per week on that week. Influenza was non-existent this year. We test for it.”

Resolution tabled, first ordinance dies

Councilor Holly Tilton Byrne moved the resolution be tabled until the April 27 meeting.

Collins asked to clarify that if they tabled the resolution, they would not have a vote to approve it. City Attorney Steve Britzman said if the council voted to table it, “then the consideration of the resolution would be terminated for tonight.”

The vote passed 6-1 to table the resolution, with Collins being the dissenting vote.

Ordinance 21-012, to keep all COVID regulations in place, then died for lack of a motion to approve.

Ordinance 21-013

City Manager Paul Briseno explained Ordinance 21-013, which maintains the mask mandate, but transitions occupancy requirements to recommendations. The ordinance will end April 30.

Orthodontist Dr. David Meyer said he stood with Hieb’s opinions, and there were others not present who supported them.

“There’s hundreds that have been working at the vaccination PODs that support this. And the people that have been standing there for eight hours a day to vaccinate our community have come together to help end this pandemic,” Meyer said, adding his thanks to them. “We’re all in this together.”

Bill Alsaker asked about data on how low-income people are faring and what can be done to make sure they get vaccinated, because he’s afraid they’re not being reached. 

He also asked for data on sales tax and businesses, including how many businesses have closed in the past year versus previous years.

Briseno said he’s been in communication with Heidi Gullickson from Brookings Area United Way and the Brookings not-for-profit group. He said Gullickson has been working at food insecurity lines and sees “a lot of people” with the vaccination stickers. He said he would continue to look into getting the information.

More criticism

“This ordinance should not even be considered because it is discriminatory against certain employees of certain businesses,” Walker said.

He said employees at restaurants and salons must wear masks, but those at big box stores don’t have to.

He also said there are no COVID hospitalizations, and all the deaths but one occurred after the mask mandate was put in place.

Gibbons returned to the lectern as well.

“I feel that we are being trampled on,” Gibbons said. “We have individual rights and freedoms; the businesses have individual rights and freedoms. They have the right to run their business and if they’re not hurting someone else, we don’t have the right – or you don’t have the right – to stop them from providing for their family, employing others in our community, providing a service.”

Leona Squires thinks the mask mandate should be removed.

She said she works for Lowe’s and sees people coming in every day without masks.

“Our employees all wear masks. They get tired of it because people can’t breathe. They can’t talk to their customers because it’s like screaming at your customers and it’s not right. And there shouldn’t be a mask mandate. You should have a right of your own to not wear a mask,” Squires said.

Council comments

Councilor Nick Wendell thanked “the dozens and dozens of folks across the community” who contacted the council with their thoughts on the topic over the last week.

“The overwhelming response was that the members of our community were in support of a mask mandate. Many of them also were in support of continuing the capacity limits,” Wendell said.

“We knew that when we instituted a mask mandate in September that we were never gonna bring the number of positive cases in our community down to zero. … Our goal is to slow the spread of COVID-19 in our community, to decrease the number of positive cases that would ultimately become hospitalizations,” Wendell said. “We have done that in Brookings County.”

He thanked the health care community for its work.

“I also want to thank our business community because I think there has been pain that has been felt in our small businesses in this community,” Wendell said.

“Now it seems like an appropriate time to lift the capacity limits,” Wendell said.

Councilor Ope Niemeyer said he did the math on residents who contacted him, who wanted Ordinance 21-013 or the resolution. 

“Basically, 3-to-1” for the ordinance, he said.

“This isn’t all just our decision up here; this is the public safety of the community, and the community makes the decision, as far as I’m concerned,” Niemeyer said.

He expected some businesses to choose to still require masks in their businesses and adhere to capacity limits.

“I think those businesses still should be recognized, that they’re trying to do the best they can for the clientele that they have coming in, because the clientele feels safe that way,” Niemeyer said. 

Councilor Patty Bacon asked Hieb if he had statistics on the number of COVID cases that were asymptomatic.

There’s no data, to his knowledge, Hieb said.

“But obviously, that’s one of the problems with COVID; you can run around for four days having COVID and not be sick. And then you get sick and people come in and get tested,” Hieb said.

Tilton Byrne said she had also done the math, and “I got that same number of about 3-to-1 in support of continuing masking, so I think that really shows that the community does want to continue to see masks happening for the time being.”

“The ordinance that we are voting on now is a nice step in the direction of, hopefully, seeing the light at the end of this tunnel,” Tilton Byrne said.

Contact Jodelle Greiner at [email protected]

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