Cincinnati City Council today passed 7-2 an ordinance requiring face masks in indoor public spaces in the city, including retail locations and on public transit starting July 9.
The law comes despite concerns from conservatives on council that it represents government overreach and that there could be racial disparities in its enforcement.
Violating the ordinance would result in a civil, not criminal, charge punishable by a $25 fine. The ordinance empowers the Cincinnati Health Department to enforce the law. Those wishing to report noncompliance are asked to call the Health Department at 513-357-7200 instead of calling the police.
Cincinnati City Council members Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney and Greg Landsman introduced the ordinance this week after Dayton and Columbus approved similar rules.
Landsman said today the measure is intended to slow the spread of COVID-19 while allowing Cincinnati's economy to remain open.
"I think what we're doing today is the right thing," Mayor John Cranley said today, noting that infections and hospitalizations are spiking in the city. "We have to take the virus seriously as it is making us seriously ill."
Employees and patrons of indoor businesses open to the public would be required to wear masks. Those visiting or working in city buildings would also be required to wear them, as would operators and riders of public transit. Masks are not required outdoors, or for people who cannot wear them for pre-existing health reasons.
Those attending or working in schools are advised to follow guidelines set by their districts and the state of Ohio.
The ordinance gives the Cincinnati Health Department the authority to issue the fines, but says that's not the first intention of the law.
"We don't issue a lot of seatbelt tickets, but people wear their seatbelts because they know it's the right thing to do and there may be a financial consequence if they don't," Landsman said.
The laws come as Ohio sees a pronounced spike in cases of the disease, especially in Hamilton County.
So far, 52,865 cases of COVID-19 have been diagnosed in Ohio, and 2,876 people have died. Many of those cases have cropped up in the past few weeks, even as retail and dining outlets reopen.
“All of this should be a wake-up call to Ohioans,” Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said yesterday. “This should be a wake-up call to all of us that we are in the fight of our lives. We’re literally fighting for lives."
Hamilton County has seen 5,224 confirmed cases of the pandemic virus and 198 deaths due to it. COVID-19 hospitalizations in Southwestern Ohio have doubled since mid-June, officials say.
Cincinnati Public Health Director Melba Moore says the city tested 2,600 people between June 16 and 25. Of those, more than 10% tested positive.
Thus far, 65 people in Cincinnati have died from COVID-19, according to the Cincinnati Health Department.
"If the numbers keep going in the direction they're going in, we're going to be faced with a hard decision," she said, referring to shutting down businesses again. "This is about intervening to prevent more deaths."
Moore says the city is working hard to make sure everyone who needs a mask gets one. The health department has been distributing masks at the city's health centers.
"This is a once-in-a-generation global health emergency," Landsman said. "Folks have become more lax in the things we have to do to protect ourselves and our families. Masks are key to that. This thing is continuing to spread, and not just because we're testing more. Experts from across the globe say that if 80% of people wore masks, we would slow if not stop the spread of this disease."
Not everyone is thrilled with the ordinance, however. Republican council members Jeff Pastor and Betsy Sundermann voted against the ordinance.
"Mandating masks is one step too far," Pastor tweeted yesterday. "I will strongly oppose any ordinance requiring citizens to wear mask. Private business and entry into government buildings requiring masks, cool. Times are getting crazier by the day."
Pastor also pointed out that racial disparities emerged during the enforcement of Gov. DeWine's previous stay at home order earlier in the pandemic. A ProPublica analysis found that of 107 charges for violating the order issued by May 8, 61 percent went to Black county residents — more than double the county's 27 percent Black population.
"I'm always concerned with the skin that I'm in and the disparate enforcement," Pastor said today. "The government that governs best governs least."
Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman pushed to amend the ordinance so that the health department is enforcing the new law, not the police.
"I can't imagine a police officer with a gun on his hip coming up to my table because I'm not wearing a mask and issuing a $25 ticket," he said.
Council members said they will push the city to watch enforcement data closely for racial disparities.
"My expectation is that there be zero disparities," Landsman said, suggesting the city review its data daily or weekly.
Local health officials pushed back on the idea that the law is big government overreach.
"We're not here to take anyone's rights away," Moore said. "If you have a pre-existing condition that prevents you from wearing a mask, that will be noted."