Tuscaloosa adopts face mask law for public spaces

A unanimous Tuscaloosa City Council voted Tuesday to require face masks in all public places in an attempt to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Set to take effect on July 6, the law applies to adults and children – parents have discretion with kids between the ages of 2 and 8 – inside of businesses that are open to the general public, when using public transportation and when outdoor gatherings consist of 10 or more people.

The law is punishable by a $25 fine and is expected to last at least 30 days, though it could be extended with another council vote.

“I think we’re truly putting the people before the politics,” said District 7 Councilwoman Sonya McKinstry, “and that’s important.”

Last week, McKinstry was the most vocal proponent of a law that would require some form of face covering in public. But in that time, enough constituents reached out to their own council representatives to bring the remaining six to her side.

District 5 Councilman Kip Tyner said he agreed with some of the points posed by those who opposed a mask mandate, but the majority of those he represents were in favor of it.

“I think it’s sad that the city has to mandate a mask,” Tyner said. “I wish people would take personal responsibilty – I’ve been saying that for months – but, obviously, people aren’t going to do that.”

Council President Cynthia Almond, who represents District 3, and District 4 Councilman Lee Busby both said their votes were reflective of the information they have learned and residents they have heard from in the past seven days.

“I think we’ve all learned a lot in this past week,” Almond said.

And District 1 Councilwoman Phyllis W. Odom said that she believed it wasn’t asking too much of any city resident.

“It’s just a small sacrifice to make and it doesn’t cost much,” Odom said. “This was like a no-brainer for me.”

The law also comes with some exceptions and will not be required when eating or drinking, if public safety is put at risk or for certain professions, such as those who work on ladders or at height, those who already wear some form of respiratory protection or in jobs that require heavy physical exertion or the operation of heavy equipment, for example.

Masks also won’t be legally required – though they are recommended – for private clubs and gatherings, places of worship or indoor athletic facilities, such as fitness centers, commercial gyms, spas and classes teaching yoga, barre or spin. However, these business will still have to comply with the current state health officer’s order.

They also won’t be required in instances where they limit effective communication, such as for someone who is hearing-impaired and needs to see the mouth of someone wearing a face covering to communicate, or to a person speaking to a large group of people, where the face covering may make it difficult for others to understand the speaker, as long as the speaker can stay at least 6 feet away from the listeners, the ordinance said.

The council’s vote came after 12 residents addressed the council on the matter, only one of whom opposed the mandate.

Dr. David Williams, a local physician, said he opposed the mask requirement law because shuttering businesses and nursing homes had not prevented COVID-19 infections from spreading through the community and he believed requiring masks would have be similarly ineffectual.

“If you’re not going to do any good, could you at least please stop doing harm,” Williams said.

His view was not supported by any of the other speakers, including University of Alabama biochemistry professor Patrick Frantom who said the city, county, state and nation were in a “state of emergency” because of the virus.

“Watch whatever channel you want to watch, but doing nothing is not an option,” Frantom said. “Now is not a time for followers. We need leaders. The status quo is not sufficient.

“Make the right choice for Tuscaloosa.”

Others voiced a similar refrain, calling on the City Council to adopt the mask ordinance despite an appearance of unpopularity.

“There is a sense of urgency and I’d really appreciate your help,” said Mildred Hooks of Woodberry Lane. “You want your legacy in this moment to be that you made a decision to save lives.”