COVID-19 mask mandate, regulations extended for 60 days

Courtesy image: Pastor Pete Grassow of First United Methodist Church encouraged the Brookings City Council to keep the COVID-19 restrictions in place. “We believe that masks are one of the essential steps to protecting our community,” Grassow said.

BROOKINGS – The Brookings City Council passed Ordinance 20-028 Tuesday 5-2 to extend COVID-19 restrictions after hearing the president of the local health system say his staff could be overrun in the near future and urge the public to wear masks.

The current ordinance was set to expire Nov. 7. Ordinance 20-028 will take effect upon publication and run for 60 days. The ordinance regulates bars, restaurants, salons and retail, including limiting capacity to 50 percent, and requires face coverings for indoor businesses and indoor public spaces.

Councilors Leah Brink and Joey Collins were the dissenting votes.

Hearing from the hospital

Jason Merkley, president and CEO of Brookings Health System, addressed the council by phone and said his presentation hadn’t changed much from last week.

“In fact, the situation’s becoming even more concerning as we look toward trends across our service area and community that lead us to believe that the capacity of our local health system is going to be stretched even further than it is today,” Merkley said.

“Today, we are experiencing significant COVID-positive hospitalizations. To be exact, we have 15 positive patients in house as I speak,” Merkley said Tuesday night.

“And that total is expected to double within the next two weeks or so, based on the continued high percent positivity rate we are experiencing across our community,” he said.

On top of those COVID patients, the hospital is still seeing patients for other needs, such as surgery. Merkley urged those who need health services to seek help instead of putting it off, which could “make matters worse.”

He said, at the moment, his “incredible staff” is able to manage the situation.

“But this is a day-by-day, hour-by-hour management of beds, staff, equipment and resources,” Merkley said.

“Believe me when I say we are doing everything that we can to plan for the uncertain future of what lies ahead; but that said, doubling down on what we are seeing today for COVID-positive patients, on top of what we typically care for and see in the busy months of October, November and December, will more than likely stress the environment and be more than we can handle in the future for an extended period of time at Brookings hospital,” Merkley said.

“This is why it is absolutely, absolutely so important to mask up, social distance, limit groups and gatherings, wash your hands and clean and disinfect areas,” Merkley said.

“Tonight, I’m asking our community, employers, and anyone else who’s listening to do everything and anything you can to stop the spread of this virus. It is of the utmost importance we do this right now; not down the road sometime, but right now,” Merkley said.

Councilor Ope Niemeyer asked Merkley if the hospital will be able to get what it needs to care for patients.

“At this point in time, we are doing everything we can to certainly scramble and get as much equipment as we possibly can, as much (personal protective equipment) as we possibly can” to prepare for what’s coming, Merkley said.

“Right now, we’re OK. I don’t know if I would say the same thing if, all of a sudden, we saw double the amount of COVID patients coming through the door,” Merkley said.

Councilor Patty Bacon asked how the region is doing, if Sioux Falls and other communities were reaching their thresholds.

“Are we going to be available to help each other out?” she asked.

“We are still, today, able to transfer patients, mainly to Sioux Falls, but they are running up against capacity,” Merkley said, adding other communities were in the same position Brookings is. “We have an influx of patients coming through our (emergency department), which is mainly where we’re seeing most of these patients being hospitalized, too.”

He said his staff is transferring out “the sickest of the sick,” assuming that Sioux Falls facilities will accept them.

Collins asked where the patients coming from.

“Most of our patients are coming from the Brookings area or region,” Merkley said.

Conflicting views

Pastor Pete Grassow of First United Methodist Church said his church council and leadership affirmed its support of the city council’s leadership.

“We believe that you do have our best interests at heart,” he said, adding his church was following the Bible’s teachings to pray for those in leadership.

“We also want to state that it’s our conviction that the most loving thing we can do is to encourage you as a council to keep this mandate in place,” Grassow said.

“We believe that masks are one of the essential steps to protecting our community. We would encourage the community to continue with social distancing, to continue to wash hands,” Grassow said.

“I find myself in the amazing place as a pastor, for the first time in my life, telling congregation members to stay at home, because that is the safest place to be,” Grassow added.

Bradley Walker stated he was opposed to the COVID restrictions on business capacities.

He said the first shutdown came too early and was not supported by the number of cases.

“It is apparent to me, according to this data, that the actions have not helped our situation,” Walker said.

He said masks shouldn’t be mandated because the rates weren’t high enough.

“To me, that hardly qualifies as a pandemic,” Walker said, citing the four deaths out of 1,413 positive cases.

“Again, I would say to end the limitations on businesses or just no action at all and allow the ordinance to expire,” Walker said.

Council comments

Councilor Holly Tilton Byrne said she supported the measures, especially after hearing Merkley’s comments about the hospital’s capacity.

“I think now is definitely not the time for us to be letting up,” she said, adding the measures the city has in place are “extremely reasonable.” 

She didn’t want to close businesses but put limitations in place to enable social distancing.

“I think what we’re seeing both locally and regionally is very scary, and I think that we all need to be taking this quite seriously,” Tilton Byrne said.

Councilor Nick Wendell wanted to re-enforce Merkley’s message.

“We’ve heard now directly from the Brookings Health System and understand the local impact of COVID-19,” Wendell said.

“These are the medical professionals that you trust with your children, your parents,” Wendell said. “And they are telling us that COVID-19 is serious, that it’s in our community.”

No one was naïve enough to think they could bring the COVID count down to zero, he said.

“But we do know there are actions that we could take that could slow the spread of the virus in Brookings,” Wendell said.

Staff and resources are being stretched and stressed; the situation is making it clear how all the medical facilities in the area depend on each other and they are “feeling this crush” which should alarm all of us, he said.

“If you’ve been on the fence about wearing a mask, if you’ve wondered whether or not you should host or attend indoor social gatherings, let what we heard tonight be a very clear and decisive call,” Wendell said.

He had a message for those who want to wear masks but have been frightened by the “loud folks in our community that make you nervous.”

“Just know that you are not in the minority,” Wendell said, adding the overwhelming majority of feedback that the council has received “were in favor of the mask mandate” and more than 50% of South Dakotans do support a mask mandate, according to recent polling.

Brink said she agreed with a lot of what Wendell said.

“Which might surprise some of you, but the reality is, I’ve said all along I’m for these behaviors and people being responsible. I just have a different policy preference for how we get there,” she said.

Brink said the group behind “Mask Up South Dakota” is not seeking a mask mandate but is calling on South Dakotans to help manage resources.

We can care about others and “still not love the idea of a forced mask mandate,” Brink said.

“I would encourage you to behave responsibly, to the extent that you possibly can,” she said.

“If this ordinance tonight were simply the ordinance without the mask mandate, I would be a ‘yes’ vote tonight, but as I specified earlier, I’m a ‘no’ because of the mask mandate,” Brink said.

Collins asked if South Dakota State University was going to cancel its inter-squad football scrimmage set for Saturday. 

Daniel Scholl, vice president for Division of Research and Economic Development, said they are having very intense discussions about that and what the council decided will factor into SDSU’s decision.

After the council’s vote, City Manager Paul Briseno presented the COVID-19 update with current numbers, noting that masks are available through the City.

“Last week, staff launched the Brookings Love Letter,” Briseno said, holding up a small card with a picture of a heart mural that Ashley Biggar painted on the east side of The Brookings Register’s building.

“We mailed this to all residents, and we encourage residents to place this in your window as a show of appreciation and community support that together we can do this,” Briseno said.

“If any community can do it, Brookings can.”

Contact Jodelle Greiner at [email protected]

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