BROOKINGS – The Brookings City Council heard support from local leaders and also faced vehement opposition to extending COVID-19 restrictions for another 60 days, but Ordinance 21-001 passed by a vote of 5-2 on Tuesday.
Councilors Leah Brink and Joe Collins cast the dissenting votes.
The ordinance mandates that masks be worn at indoor public spaces and businesses where 6-foot social distancing is not possible. It also requires bars, restaurants, casinos, grocery, retail and fitness businesses to operate at half capacity and all their employees to wear face coverings, among other requirements.
The restrictions were set to expire Feb. 13, and the new ordinance extends them for another 60 days upon publication.
Exceptions to the ordinance include children under 5, medical conditions, religious place, educational units, certain nonprofits, and organized sports activities that have an approved plan.
Support from hospital, schools
“There is still substantial spread of the virus in our county, although the trend is going in the right direction,” said Jason Merkley, president and CEO of Brookings Health System.
He issued a warning about the new “highly contagious strains” of COVID-19 that have been identified in the nation “and are certainly making their way around the country; I don’t know if they’ve been (identified) in the state of South Dakota … my guess is they are here,” he said.
Vaccine coverage is not complete, he said, but “we’re making great strides.”
Brookings County is No. 1 in the state regarding vaccination of 80-plus-year-olds, Merkley said, “but still not quite there.”
He recommended maintaining the current regulations and ordinances because that’s what’s “best for our community.”
“I’m glad to share that we are in February and we are open,” said Klint Willert, superintendent of Brookings School District.
He’s always called it a marathon and “we’re still running the marathon” and doing it well, Willert said.
The district uses data to help guide decisions, he said, citing a recent COVID survey done in Brookings. Nearly 65% of respondents shared there was moderate to extreme concern about COVID-19.
“I think we all have a common goal, and that’s to get to the finish line of this marathon that we’re running,” Willert said.
Vaccinations are under way and there’s been great effort by health care professionals, he said.
“We are eyeing the prize right now for our students: those monumental life events that we can all reflect back upon, such as prom and graduation. And we know how impactful those can be and we are striving to continue to be open so that we can provide those life opportunities for our students and equally, their families,” Willert said.
The school district believes “it’s a prudent step to continue” the restrictions. Willert acknowledged everyone has “COVID fatigue” but “the course that we’ve charted has been successful, and I believe it will continue to be successful until we do cross the finish line.”
Daniel Scholl is vice president of research and economic development at South Dakota State University.
He said SDSU will welcome the day “when we can wake up in the morning and not have COVID-19 be the dominant news story,” but “we’re not there yet.”
“As we remind ourselves in our daily campus COVID-19 meetings, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel with the vaccines, but we’re still in the tunnel,” Scholl said.
He expressed support for the ordinances to keep the mask policy and other restrictions in place.
“It’s clear these have worked, and they’ve been critical in helping our community navigate this pandemic, especially during the toughest times,” Scholl said.
Brookings has been a leader in the effort to understand COVID-19, and the mandate and restrictions have helped keep the community and campuses as safe as possible, “in a region of the country that was known for the severity of the epidemic’s impact less than two months ago,” he said.
The mask mandate and limiting of social gatherings “is one reason we are able to keep our students on campus and our businesses open,” Scholl said, adding SDSU’s thanks to business owners. “Without the ordinances in place, we might have been at even more risk of going online last semester and sending our students home,” he said.
SDSU’s goal this spring is to finish classes on campus and provide graduates with an opportunity to “walk across the stage and hear their name called as an SDSU graduate,” he said. “We need the community’s help to get to that day.”
SDSU is concerned about spring break, which is an opportunity for some to travel and possibly bring back COVID or one of the new variant strains.
He encouraged the council to keep the ordinances in place “and maintain our vigilance” so the campus and businesses stay open.
Bradley Walker urged the council to not extend the ordinance, claiming all the thresholds to remove restrictions have been met and Brookings Health System is not overwhelmed by COVID cases.
He compared COVID and seasonal flu deaths and said no masks have been required or businesses or events shut down for flu season.
“There is no evidence of a new variant anywhere in South Dakota,” he claimed.
“Everything has been met; it’s time to move on,” Walker said.
Bill Alsaker said 35 people have died in Brookings County. He said Brookings County’s death rate is much lower than Brown County, Codington County and Davison County.
“It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that we have the lowest death rate when we also took the most action,” Alsaker said.
He said it bothers him when COVID is not framed as a health issue, but as a personal choice; people’s choice to go places affects others.
His grandmother, 97, is in a facility in a small community, where COVID has spread much more than in Brookings, he said.
“And she hasn’t made choices to go out and party at a bar, but someone else made choices, presumably, and the virus got into the nursing home and she and pretty much everyone in the nursing home got it,” Alsaker said.
“Thank you for being leaders on this, most of you taking this seriously,” he told the council. “And I want to thank people in town for taking this seriously” and for not spreading it to other people.
“We have a wind at our back; it’s called vaccinations, but it’s just beginning,” Dr. David Meyer said, adding we need to get the older population vaccinated.
People 65 and older make up 30% of the national population, but that age group accounts for 80% of the COVID deaths and hospitalizations, he said.
“Thank you for your patience, thanks for relying on the science of the experts and thank you for listening tonight,” Meyer said.
Teresa Holloman is a business owner in Brookings.
“I’d have my second business closed already, if I wasn’t locked into a lease,” she said. “I haven’t seen a single one of you on this city council come support my business.”
“I can go two, three days and not have a single person come in my store,” Holloman said. “They’re shopping in other (cities) instead of coming here.”
“Social distancing and restricting the normal course of business in privately owned businesses violates our Constitutional, First Amendment right for the freedom of assembly,” Holloman said.
“The Brookings City Council has gone beyond their authority to enact what is necessary to prevent the spread of COVID,” Holloman said.
Holloman said if the council cared about the public’s health and safety, they would be telling them “how to improve our immune system” with vitamins and minerals.
“I’m tired of living in fear. Mandatory masks are not about health and safety; they’re about social control,” Holloman said.
“If this rogue city council continues forward with these draconian measures, … I will have no choice but to take legal action, and I will not be alone,” Holloman said.
Rebecca Barber wanted the council to allow the restrictions to expire.
“Neighboring states, cities and counties are dropping all restrictions, and it’s time that the council stop holding our business owners and our citizens hostage,” she said.
The council members have gone against public opinion and “you want to keep your grasp on our community, but it’s time for you to end this,” Barber said.
“I just feel like it’s time to stop; it’s time to allow your community members and your businesses to get back to making their own decisions,” Barber said.
Russ Widhalm said New York studies have found that bars, restaurants and gyms are not vectors for the spread of SARS-coronavirus2.
“So, I think maybe you’re looking at the wrong people to penalize with your ordinance,” he said.
“Why are you really extending the ordinance?” he asked the council and criticized comments made by Councilor Nick Wendell regarding making masks normal.
“This ordinance should end,” Widhalm said, adding he moved here in August. “From what I’ve seen, this isn’t leadership.”
Councilor Patty Bacon asked Merkley when vaccinations for those 65-plus will begin.
Merkley said the state Department of Health will probably go down by five-year increments; they’re at 75 as of Monday, he thinks they will go down to 70 soon.
Bacon said the council hears from people thanking them for the restrictions, but many do not show up at the meetings because they do not feel safe. Business owners have also expressed their thanks to the council.
“They understand that we are doing the best we can with the information we have,” Bacon said.
She asked everyone to be patient and respectful.
“I’m thrilled these numbers are starting to go down and I pray they will continue to go down, but we must all work together to keep our numbers some of the lowest in the state,” Bacon said.
“One death is too many; 35 is extremely high,” Councilor Ope Niemeyer said. “How can we not try to do everything we possibly can to keep who we have yet safe?”
He pointed out spring break was coming, “They could be bringing the variant back to our state.”
Councilor Leah Brink said she’s troubled by the unknown relationship between causality and what actually happens with the disease, since there are so many variables in who gets it and how it affects them. She said some people follow rules and while others are less likely to follow it because it is a rule. It’s unclear to her, she said, whether the pieces of legislation across the nation are causing a change in behavior.
“I’m of the opinion at this point in time that this is not effective for the city of Brookings,” Brink said, saying she wants the same measures in a resolution.
Councilor Joey Collins apologized to Alsaker if he came across as cold in a previous meeting, but he stood by what he said about the measures going to guidelines.
“I feel bad about the businesses that we lost or we might lose,” Collins said.
“What does the end look like, guys?” he asked. “Do all these numbers have to be zero before we say we’re done?”
Mayor Keith Corbett said the council should discuss those perimeters in a study session.
Wendell said it was important for the council to have these discussions on the COVID ordinances as they reconsider them.
“It’s an important part of the decision-making process,” Wendell said.
He felt it was important to responsibly share information.
“We know far more about COVID-19 today than we knew a year ago; it is a novel virus,” he said, adding we know more about the effectiveness of the measures that have been taken, as well.
“Mask wearing helps to slow the spread of the virus,” he said. Mask wearing combined with social distancing helps even more, and the new vaccines are highly effective.
“You should rely on the medical experts that you have relied on throughout your life, throughout the lives of your children, and your parents and your grandparents, to continue to give you sound medical advice in the midst of the worst public health crisis we’ve experienced in a century,” Wendell said.
“Mask-wearing, plus social distancing will be a way we can navigate through the next couple of weeks and months until the vaccines become more readily available and a higher percentage of members of our community are able to take them,” Wendell said.
He said it was important to not just have a mask mandate, but to maintain the capacity limits with businesses. There are a number of people who, for various reasons, cannot wear a mask or just won’t. Those exceptions are built into the ordinance, Wendell said.
“Which means that just simply having a mask mandate in place on its own isn’t enough,” he said.
The social distancing restrictions are in place to help protect those people, Wendell said.
“Mask mandates plus social distancing (and) capacity limits in indoor spaces is the only combination that I think is going to help us to maintain the control we have today over the number of positive cases in our community as we move toward the spring and summer and the higher percentage of vaccinations,” Wendell said.
Contact Jodelle Greiner at [email protected]