FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — A new Fayetteville ordinance that went into effect Wednesday requires businesses to make customers wear masks. This is the first such ordinance in Arkansas, and people in the area are split on whether it should’ve passed.
“City council decided pretty clearly last night that it is our responsibility to watch out for our citizens here locally,” said Kyle Smith, a city council member. “We started seeing a sharp increase in the number of COVID cases here in Northwest Arkansas.”
Last week, Washington Regional released a statement calling the outbreak a, “serious public health emergency,” in Northwest Arkansas. The hospital reported a 170% increase in the number of COVID-19 tests performed at its screening clinics, a 156% increase in calls to the Washington Regional COVID-19 Hotline and a 350% increase in the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients.
“Something had to change in our approach so that we can do our local job of flattening the curve and keeping the infection rates at least mitigated, if not stopped,” Smith said.
The ordinance, intended for public areas, mandates businesses to require their customers to don masks with the expectation they’ll be refused service on refusal. There’s no legal action that’ll be taken against patrons, Smith said, with the ultimate penalty being asked to leave the business. Smith described the set standard for business compliance as, “broad”.
“The standard is willful negligence, so any business showing some sort of good-faith effort will be in compliance here,” Smith said.
The ordinance also provides money for businesses to utilize a resource center and get masks.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) responded to Fayetteville’s decision, discouraging other cities from following suit.
“What you don’t want to see if 50 different municipal ordinances all providing different directions and requirements or penalties in reference to wearing of masks,” Hutchinson said.
Since Fayetteville’s 8-0 vote Tuesday night, Springdale and Rogers have moved to make announcements on actions they’re taking in regards to mandatory mask-wearing.
In a Facebook post, Springdale Mayor Doug Sprouse said the city will continue encouraging people to wear masks, but he will not enforce an ordinance and thinks it would be impossible to do so even if he desired one.
Rogers Mayor Greg Hines held a news conference Wednesday in which he announced a new system that will allow businesses to opt into openly declaring they’ll follow safety guidelines. Those that do will be included in a publicly-available list.
Hannah Withers is the co-owner of Leverett Lounge in Fayetteville, a place that serves a variety of drinks and medium to higher-end dishes. Though dine-in service returned for Arkansas restaurants in May’s Phase I reopening and expanded in Phase II this month, Withers still hasn’t made the move for her eatery.
“We’ve sort of been watching the numbers, and we thought we might open when we hit two-thirds occupancy by state mandate,” Withers said. “As our [positive COVID-19 case] numbers are getting bigger, we’ve decided to put that off for a little while longer.”
After Withers learned of the Fayetteville city council’s decision to pass a mask-requirement ordinance, she said reopening could come sooner rather than later.
“I think I’m gonna feel better about opening now that we have this in place,” Withers said. “I am fully on board for masks in public places.”
The onus is on businesses to enforce the ordinance, Smith said, meaning each owner has the ability to tailor how he or she goes about dealing with people who refuse to comply. Eric Small is the operations manager for Gusano’s Pizza, which has restaurants spread across Northwest Arkansas including a location on Wedington Drive in Fayetteville. He said that spot will willingly comply with the ordinance.
“We certainly understand that people have their opinion and they’re welcome to it, but we’re definitely not gonna throw our hat into the political aspect of it,” Small said. “We just wanna serve pizza.”
Gusano’s has enforced a mask policy since it first reopened in March, Small said, so employees have learned how to handle people who aren’t complying with the requirement. Most interactions have been positive, and customers have been understanding, except for a minor few.
“We’ve certainly had a few people who’re upset, but for the most part I think people are tired and scared, and they’ve been stuck at home for a long time,” Small said. “For a lot of people, their patience has run thin, and we try to be sympathetic. At the same time, we do have a policy and we plan on sticking to it.”
Many people in Northwest Arkansas expressed displeasure with the new ordinance, referring to it as, “tyranny,” “dumb,” or indicating it takes away people’s personal rights.
Bill Orton and Chris Chew live in Fayetteville, and they both said they plan to boycott any businesses that comply with the new ordinance. Each expressed a similar sentiment: the city’s government is overreaching its power and going down the wrong path.
“The idea that city government can close down businesses and order people to wear masks is just wrong,” Orton said.
Orton said he is bothered by businesses catering to what he called, “health Nazis”.
“The message is to boycott businesses that enforce the mask mandate and to patronize businesses out of town or businesses that kind of ignore the mandate,” Orton said.
“It’s only the owner of a business that has the right to decide the policies of that business,” Chew said. “Just as it would be wrong to threaten force, fines or worse against a business because I disagree with their policies, so too would it be wrong for me to ask someone to do that on my behalf.”
Smith said he’s heard the frustrations from many Northwest Arkansans who don’t support the city mandating public masks.
“We never expected it to be uncontroversial, although it was a unanimous decision by the city council because we believe strongly that public health has to take priority,” Smith said. “In a very short period of time, we were receiving hundreds of emails from supporters.”
Withers is one of those supporters, and she said the city sent a solid message to its residents.
“I think it was a brave move for them to put their foot down and say, ‘I think this could help our situation,’ even if the state may not mandate it,” Withers said.