The debate over Mobile's COVID-19 face mask ordinance

Jul 9, 2020

An APR News Feature

Tomorrow marks one week since the city of Mobile made the wearing of masks mandatory. Alabama’s port city joined Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, and Montgomery in requiring residents to wear face coverings to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The law includes the possibility of fines for non-compliance. The city council passed the ordinance after debate by those for and against the issue.

Mobile’s mandatory mask ordinance went into effect after the local coronavirus caseload jumped 70 percent in June. Mobile County started that month with 2,000 COVID-19 cases. At the end of the month, that total was closing in at 4,000 cases with one 136 people dead. Mayor Sandy Stimpson said officials and doctors knew something had to be done.

“The whole idea behind it was to slow what has been the rapid increase of the cases in the last couple of weeks,” Stimpson said. “I look at the graph every single day. After Memorial Day, it was flat and then all of the sudden, it just started spiking and so it’s an effort to do that.”

Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson discusses the proposed face mask ordinance before the City Council convenes to debate the matter
Credit APR's Guy Busby

That didn’t mean Mobile’s mandatory mask ordinance sailed to reality without a fight. There were two days of debate, including heated objections from some residents. During the proceedings at city hall, supporters including the chief medical officers of all four major local hospitals told the council that Mobile needed to require masks.

“The CDC guidance is two days old and the quote from the CDC was yesterday that they’re worried that the coronavirus is kind of getting out of control in the US,” said Dr. George Koulianos, president of the Medical Society of Mobile County. “I think it’s a very obvious decision for the hospitals’ protection, ultimately for the community’s protection, we need to just kind of wear masks for a month, see where it goes. Things calm down, no more masks.”

Dr. Bill Admire is CMO of Infirmary Health Systems. Doctors and nurses at infirmary hospitals have been watching admissions and deaths increase since March.

“At the Infirmary at one time on the fourth floor, we had 110 coronavirus patients, 27 on ventilators, and many of them died,” Admire said.

While doctors all said the mask requirement is needed to protect the community, residents were split. Most told the council they opposed the ordinance.

Credit Pixabay

“This is the most tyrannical ordinance that you could pass. You do not have the right to come against our constitutional rights,” registered nurse Pam Malone said.

She said medical opinion has not been consistent on masks.

“The CDC announced and says at the beginning, oh, you are ridiculous for if you wear a face mask because you’re touching your face and now, all of the sudden, you’re going to make criminals out of law-abiding citizens if you don’t wear a mask,” Malone said. “I’m a critical care RN, 34 years at the bedside. With all due respect to Dr. Koulianos and these medical experts, I laugh because they’re not really over the patient over the bedside.”

Malone said residents will not tolerate a mask requirement.

“So we’re going to throw a mask on everybody, shut everybody up again, I’m not doing it and I’m going to lead a revolution, a revolution for constitutional rights,” she said. “I’m sick of it. I’m tired of not having our voices heard.”

Sabrina Mass is also a nurse. She said people have rights, but they also have responsibilities.

“Those who choose not to wear a facemask during this pandemic risk harming others because no one can be certain that they are virus free even if they have been tested,” Mass said. “Am I virus free? I have no idea. That’s why I will wear a mask. Give me liberty or give me death was a great slogan for rallying partisans to charge British muskets in 1776. It’s a terrible public health philosophy in the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.”

Mass said that while some people find masks uncomfortable, the alternative is much less pleasant.

“I tell you what, I have had many patients in my history to be put on ventilators,” she told the city council. “It is a painful process. If anyone could see the pictures of how that procedure is done. Good ventilators and see how you intubate and I bet you will wear that mask.”

Not all council members agreed on the ordinance. John Williams cast the only vote against the motion.

“I do think you need to wear a mask,” Williams said. “I just simply don’t think that an ordinance is going to make people wear them. I think they’re going to be ineffective and this ordinance is going to be unenforceable.”

A protective mask face is left on the statue of Ralph Chander, founder and publisher of the "Mobile Press Register" newspaper.
Credit APR's Guy Busby

Williams said business owners should decide whether customers should use masks in their establishments.

“But if Fresh Market, Costco, the Shell station at the corner or whatever drug store or private business that’s in our city wants to say that you must wear a mask to come in this private business or the mayor says that you must wear a mask to come on this government property, then I think they’re well within their rights,” he said.

The ordinance will be in effect for 30 days unless the council decides to renew it. It requires anyone who is not in a home or car to wear a mask, whether they’re on public or private property. That’s anyone older than 10, unless they have a medical exemption. Stimpson said that while violators can be fined $50 for the first offense and $100 after that, the emphasis will be on giving out masks, not tickets.

“I think the police department is going to be able to handle this real well. It’s an easy lift from the standpoint of they’re going to approach people if they see them without a mask and the first thing they’re going to say is ‘Do you have a mask? Here you go. We need you to comply with the ordinance. Please put it on,'” Stimpson said. “Unless somebody’s really trying to be obstinate or defiant, that’s what they’re going to do. They’re going to put it on.”

Mobile joins Tuscaloosa, Montgomery, Birmingham, and Jefferson County in requiring residents to wear face masks.

This Alabama Public Radio news feature is part of APR's effort to address the "news desert" along the state's Gulf coast. APR recruited and trained veteran print journalists in Mobile and Baldwin counties to join our news team to do radio stories from along the Gulf coast.