Council Votes 9-3 To Extend Rosenthal Mask Mandate After COVID Cases Escalate
By Jim Taylor and John Voket
UPDATE: This report was updated at 4:30 pm on September 3 to include the names of the council members voting agaist the mask mandate extension.
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After spirited discussion, the Legislative Council this week voted 9-3 to extend a local indoor mask mandate that was initiated nearly a week earlier by First Selectman Dan Rosenthal and went into effect Monday, August 30.
Council Chairman Paul Lundquist confirmed to The Newtown Bee that council members Ryan Knapp, Philip Carroll, and Cathy Reiss opposed extending the mandate, which requires that masks be worn by all individuals in indoor public spaces, including businesses, regardless of vaccination status.
Utilizing the Newtown CODE Red system August 26, Rosenthal instituted a masking mandate in the hope of curtailing the spread of COVID-19 and its aggressive delta variant.
On September 2, Newtown remained in the state’s “red zone” classification for new COVID-19 cases, with 16.9 cases per 100,000. Newtown had logged 125 new cases over the preceding four weeks, according to the state Department of Public Health COVID-19 database.
Rosenthal’s initial order of a state of emergency would have only lasted five days, ending on September 3. But with the council’s extension at its September 1 meeting, the mandate will continue at least until the council revisits the matter at its October 6 meeting or Rosenthal rescinds it, whichever comes first.
Health District Director Donna Culbert told The Newtown Bee she is hoping that, along with increased use of face coverings in public buildings, residents will continue to be vigilant about masking up. She is also urging avoiding contact with others, especially if someone is showing any symptoms associated with the novel coronavirus.
“We kind of abandoned social distancing and minimizing exposure to crowds after state restrictions went away earlier this summer and our numbers of people who were vaccinated increased significantly,” Culbert said.
The local health official said she is concerned that continued widespread contacts in the coming couple of weeks will influence the virus’ spreading to others.
“We’re going to see end-of-summer traveling, Labor Day weekend parties, and families socializing around the beginning of school,” Culbert said. “So all I can hope for is these gatherings and parties will not be too big, and that they will occur primarily outdoors. And if you’re symptomatic, please don’t mix with others.””
There have been 125 new cases since August 6: 26 the week of August 9, 31 the week of August 16, 32 the week of August 23, and 36 this week. To date, Newtown has logged 2,307 COVID-19 cases that resulted in 67 deaths, however, the last related death occurred months ago.
The Legislative Council had a two-hour, at times contentious debate over whether to extend Rosenthal’s order.
The discussion began with Chair Paul Lundquist stating that the discussion “at its core is not about personal beliefs about masks, or COVID, but about the facts,” which were that Newtown has been designated a COVID red zone.
“We’re at a stage where some government mitigation is important,” said Lundquist.
The Hardest Decision
Rosenthal stated that of all the decisions he’s made over 3½ years as first selectman, “this one was one of the hardest.” He said that wherever the council landed on the issue, it was important the town act “as a collective ‘we,’ instead of just ‘me.’”
Rosenthal and Culbert both expressed optimism that cases would begin falling as summer travel was ending and people would be returning to a more normal structured routine.
Council member Cathy Reiss said that Connecticut is in good shape with vaccinations and questioned the fact that the numbers used to decide if an area was in the red zone haven’t been updated to reflect if an area should be in the red zone if it has a higher rate of vaccinations. She stated she felt that a mask mandate may be “spreading a false sense of fear and panic.”
“Are we keeping people safe or making people fearful?” asked Reiss.
Culbert stated she did “not want to make people fearful,” however, she felt that the numbers showed “a need to do something.”
“I feel an obligation to do something to help,” Culbert said.
Reiss said that there is “a lot of confusion out there” and from what she’s hearing from people outside of the council chambers, “things are unclear.”
“We’re not changing what happens in the schools, they’re already mandated to wear masks,” said Reiss. “People who are unvaccinated are already mandated to wear masks.”
She mentioned a local pastor who expressed concern about the new mandate. She said the pastor gives his sermons from 20 feet away from his congregation but was concerned if he had to wear a mask, that people would have a harder time hearing him, and that those with hearing disabilities would not be able to read his lips. She called the current mandate “more restrictive” than the previous mandate because she thought the pastor did not have to wear a mask under the mandate that ended in May.
Rosenthal said that the town would be very unlikely to take any enforcement action against a pastor giving a sermon from 20 feet away. Reiss then questioned how the mandate would be enforced.
Rosenthal answered that he “never wanted to turn Newtown into a police state” and that a community could “not recover when people feel their neighbors ratted them out.”
“This is not intended for businesses to get into fights with people,” Rosenthal said. “If we go into a business and they are flagrantly violating the mask mandate, we’ll have a conversation with them. I find that most people are reasonable. To have a scorched-earth method of ensuring compliance does not serve anyone well.”
Council member Ryan Knapp said that the “key is vaccinations” and that “masking vaccinated people is sending the wrong message.” While he personally chooses to mask, he said the efficacy of vaccinations was proven and that many other people who were hesitant about getting vaccinated were told to “get the jab or wear the mask.”
“My concern is that actions speak louder than words, and this casts doubt on the vaccine,” Knapp said. “I think this mandate is a disincentive. We’re talking masks when we should be focused on the vaccine… I don’t want to bolster vaccine hesitancy.”
Culbert acknowledged that as a good point, but she believes that in Newtown, with a very high percentage of vaccinated residents, that anyone who is still resistant to the idea of taking the vaccine is unlikely to change their mind at this point. She said that before, when the vaccination was first released, she was able to convince some people who were on the fence, but that is unlikely to happen now.
Knapp also expressed concern about what “the long game” was, or if the town was going to be stuck in a cycle of having to have mask mandates every few months.
Culbert said she hoped to see the cases go down in the near future. She thought that while there may be small spikes from last weekend being the last weekend before school began and from Labor Day weekend, she thought that a return to routine would help cases go down. She also said that booster shots for the vaccine were becoming available.
“I’d like to get to a place where maybe the virus doesn’t go away, but where it becomes more manageable,” said Culbert. “All we’re asking is for people to wear masks and consider their behavior, we’re not asking for anything more.”
Knapp stated he couldn’t support the mandate extension because he felt it was imposing on vaccinated people to protect the unvaccinated. He said “we should be celebrating because of the low mortality rate which speaks to the efficacy of the vaccine.”
Protecting The Unvaccinated
Council member Judit DeStefano said she was “OK” with imposing a mandate on the vaccinated to protect the unvaccinated. She noted that children under 12 and people who are immunocompromised or who have other health issues that prevent them from becoming vaccinated would be among those protected.
“That’s the reality,” said DeStefano. “It’s a small sacrifice to make in terms of changes to be made.”
Council member Jordana Bloom said that the order was important to help protect people who can’t get the vaccine, and one large part of the population currently can’t be vaccinated — those under the age of 12. Culbert replied that the schools were in pretty good shape and are already under a mask mandate from the state.
“We have amazing people working for us,” Cubert said. “I’ve talked with the school nurses; they have quite a system in place to protect the kids.”
Bloom said that the council had received 45 letters from people supporting the extension of the mask mandate, and none opposing it.
“This is a no-brainer, and I can’t believe [the conversation about the mandate] has gone on this long,” said Bloom.
The text of Rosenthal’s CODE Red message related to the mask order was as follows:
“Over the last 18 months I have regularly sought the advice of our Health Director, Donna Culbert, as we worked to guide our community through the pandemic. We are also fortunate to have Dr John Murphy, CEO of Nuvance, as a resident and his help and guidance has been invaluable to me as well.
“Based on their advice, which is based on case data and what are unfortunately increased admissions from the region to Danbury Hospital, I have decided to issue a local indoor mask mandate regardless of vaccination status for all public spaces, including businesses, effective Monday morning, pursuant to Governor Lamont’s executive order,” the notification continued. “This is not a decision that I take lightly, however it is the one that makes the most sense given current circumstances.
“I think when issuing mandates, leaders should also be giving guidance as to what dynamics would need to be present in order to lift them, especially because I believe we will be navigating this for a while,” Rosenthal related. “In this case, barring something unforeseen, I would expect we would lift it after consecutive weeks of case decline where cases fall below CDC guidance. To put this in perspective, prior to last week’s DPH report, Newtown was below CDC guidance of 10 cases per 100,000 population for suggesting masks indoors. As of today’s report, we are at 16.9.
“In order for that to happen it does come down to us, as wearing masks indoors will do little to change our circumstances if people are not conscientious of other activities, such as travel and large gatherings. Our local businesses have managed through a nightmare, and despite that they have still supported our community, as always. Please continue to support them, and despite none of us being happy about this, I made this decision and I own it, not them.
“I hope to be in a position to share better news soon,” the first selectman concluded. “Thank you and take care.”
According to a recent Associated Press report, the US is projected to see nearly 100,000 more COVID-19 deaths by December 1, according to the nation’s most closely watched forecasting model. But health experts say that toll could be cut in half if nearly everyone wore a mask in public spaces.
In other words, what the coronavirus has in store this fall depends on human behavior.
“Behavior is really going to determine if, when, and how sustainably the current wave subsides,” said Lauren Ancel Meyers, director of the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium. “We cannot stop delta in its tracks, but we can change our behavior overnight.”
That means doubling down again on masks, limiting social gatherings, staying home when sick, and getting vaccinated.
“Those things are within our control,” Meyers said.