Amarillo City Council moves forward with controversial face mask enforcement ordinance

With a 4-1 vote on Friday, the Amarillo City Council moved forward with a controversial ordinance that could fine businesses not enforcing masks in Potter and Randall counties. 

Since the ordinance did not pass with unanimous consent, the Amarillo City Council will hold a second reading and vote on Monday before the ordinance can take effect.   

Amarillo City Council member Elaine Hays voted against the mask enforcement ordinance. 

"We are not discussing the effectiveness of masks. This ordinance is not addressing the effectiveness of masks. 

"What we are discussing is if business owners should be the ones to enforce compliance with the current mask mandate and whether or not we have the legal right to make that transfer of responsibility along with issuing penalties," Hays said.

Nelson disagreed with Hays several times during the over 4 hour meeting. The mayor believes the proposed ordinance could increase the responsibility of wearing masks. 

"What we are asking for is just more effort from people, including business owners, which is really difficult to ask for at this time, because business owners have already made tremendous effort. 

"They have changed the way they are doing business. They have fought to stay open. They have fought to stay profitable.

"It's not that businesses have not made efforts to help us. It's the desperation of our hospital situation that is forcing us to ask for more effort," Nelson said. 

Nelson said later in the discussion "there is no easy option here."

"My heart goes out to every single person who's struggling through this. I appreciated every caller who called in. I fear doing nothing or continuing to rely on people to voluntarily comply with the Governor's order, that approach got us exactly where we are right now," Nelson said. 

Amarillo City Council member Freda Powell said "I believe it is my responsibility to think about the majority of the people in our city, and think about their health and safety," 

"I think we all have to be responsible. I think we do need to increase compliance. I need to be responsible. 

"Our businesses need to be responsible and our patrons need to be responsible. I have to listen to our medical professionals and make the best decision possible in this situation," Powell said before voting in favor of the ordinance.

Councilmembers Eddy Sauer and Howard Smith also voted in support of the ordinance during the meeting. 

This particular issue may have caused a permanent divide between Hays and the rest of the Amarillo City Council. 

Hays noted that in the past that even if the councilmembers had some disagreements, they put those aside and moved forward with unity. "I just need to tell my fellow councilmembers that I cannot do that on this particular ordinance," Hays said. 

"If it passes, I cannot move in unity with that. I have to state clearly that it is unconstitutional, potentially illegal and an unfair transfer of burden to our small businesses. I want just as much to see our numbers come down, and I still feel there are other methods that we have not utilized that could be possibilities before this," Hays said.

The proposed ordinance would follow Texas Health and Safety Code - Section 341.011. This section of the health code addresses public health nuisances. 

"There's a section in there that defines as a nuisance - a site that does not follow minimum standards, because it's a place or condition that is possible and a probable medium of disease transmission in and between humans.

"Our draft ordinance changes that. So we have modified that language inside this ordinance to have it read - a site that does not follow the minimum standards established in this ordinance is a public health nuisance because it is a place or condition that's possible and probable medium of COVID-19 transmission in or between humans. This will be enforced by Environmental Health personnel and could also be enforced by police," Amarillo City Manager Jared Miller stated earlier in the week.

Environmental Health workers would enforce the ordinance starting with a warning but eventually the possibility of a fine up to $2,000.

"The purpose of this is to give some teeth to the governor's order The Texas Health and Safety guidelines do provide those measures, but this makes very clear that COVID-19 is one of the conditions that we're trying to protect against. And I think we can all agree there's nothing more significant that we're trying protect against right now than coronavirus.

"A citation is not issued upon first witnessing the condition that is a violation A notice of violation is issued - the entity or business has an opportunity to remedy or correct. The city employee who is charged with doing this would then revisit at some point in the future. If they witness it that second time or if the condition has not been corrected, then a citation would be issued," Miller said.