Eight months and counting: Portsmouth's mask mandate

Patrick Keck, The Portsmouth Daily Times, Ohio
·4 min read

Mar. 13—PORTSMOUTH — Families and friends out-and-about in Portsmouth, whether it be shopping at River Town Antique Mall or eating at Sonora's Mexican Grill, have been required since July to be accompanied by one thing: masks.

Saturday marks eight months to-the-date since the city council moved forward with its mandate, 10 days before Gov. Mike DeWine's announcement that masks would be required throughout the state.

"It was very important to have it in place," said Portsmouth City Health Commissioner Chris Smith. "It certainly helped us manage the outbreak."

The ordinance, passed in a 4-1 vote with Mayor Kevin Johnson as the sole dissenter, established fees for violating individuals and places of businesses. According to the ordinance obtained by the Portsmouth Daily Times, violators would first receive a warning and then face financial consequences for subsequent infractions.

For businesses, $500 fines would be levied after its second violation and $1,000 for each future violation. Individuals would pay $25 for their second and additional transgressions.

Having introduced the ordinance that Monday evening, 1st Ward Councilman Sean Dunne did not know how long the legislation would be in place but feels the city's action has passed the test of time.

"Looking back, I'm really glad we did this for the reasons of public health," he said Friday. "I am looking forward to the days where we don't have to walk around wearing masks, but until it's safe then that's what the plan is going to be."

Dunne said his decision was informed based on scientific evidence, the likes of which are now being challenged in states like Texas and Mississippi that have done away with their statewide mandates.

With similar calls in the Ohio General Assembly to limit DeWine's and the Ohio Department of Health's authority, legislation co-sponsored by Sen. Terry Johnson, R-McDermott, among them, Smith pleads that the public continues to adhere to these orders as more vaccines arrive and new case numbers level off.

"I do not want to see us stop wearing masks any time soon," he said, adding that these states still encourage citizens to wear masks but just no longer require them. "It's the easiest thing for us to do. We all want to visit our families, go out to restaurants, and have some gatherings and the easiest one is just keep wearing the masks."

"Continuing to wear those masks will keep the numbers down and will allow us to do more of those group events and the things we really care about," he added, graduations, weddings, and banquets a real possibility when following the mandate.

A challenging time already for businesses, Smith feels the burden of enforcement at least has been alleviated who can rely on the city and state policy rather than their own. ODH responded by created the Retail Compliance Unit, which visits businesses throughout the state to ensure orders are being followed.

"The city mandate gave them another tool and it took it off from 'Hey, our restaurant isn't going to let you in without a mask' to being able to say 'Hey, there's a city ordinance," he said, enforcement tasked to PCHD and the Portsmouth Police Department.

No fines have been issued to Smith's knowledge, the city moving instead to use warnings and to hold regular conversations with businesses to make sure employees and customers are adhering to the rules. RCU has also closed no businesses but has issued 228 warnings as of March 11.

Compliance in general to the ordinance has been strong for Sasha Wilson, owner of the Earth Candy Farmacy on sixth Street. All this small grocery store knows is operating during a pandemic, the unprecedented being the precedent.

"We thought this was going to be three weeks," she said, moving to the area from Parkersburg, West Virginia. "Obviously that didn't happen."

Originally set to open doors in March 2020, Earth Candy would have been allowed to operate during the shutdown as an essential service. Instead, Wilson opted to delay the opening to better prepare the shop full of local food products, candles and more.

Approaching a year in business, strong ties to the community have been created in spite of the altered world the grocery inhabited. Wilson said the tight-knit sense of Portsmouth has her optimistic for the post-COVID future.

"We really think if we can make it through this that we'll be just fine," she said.

Reach Patrick Keck (740)-353-3501 ext. 1931, by email at pkeck@aimmediamidwest.com, or on Twitter @pkeckreporter.

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