Mar. 19—Jeff Smith has been faced with plenty of challenges in 15 years of serving on the Mitchell City Council.
But none of those challenges has been as tough as navigating the city through the COVID-19 pandemic. From balancing civil liberties and public health measures to approving a multimillion dollar budget amid economic uncertainty, the virus tested each council member's relationship since the day it hit Mitchell a year ago.
As a few South Dakota cities began enacting COVID-19 restrictions such as shutting businesses down and mandating masks, Smith said he knew it was only a matter of time until he and his fellow council members would have to make those tough decisions. But he wasn't expecting those decisions to divide a council that's had a long history of staying fairly unified.
"I've never seen the council more polarized, to tell you the truth. But never in the amount of time that I served on the council have I come across such a difficult time period," Smith said of dealing with the pandemic.
Throughout the early stages of imposing public health measures in response to the virus, the council seemed to be on the same page with their decisions. But all of that would change when council member Susan Tjarks proposed the first mask mandate in the city during the fall. A couple seconds after Tjarks requested a city facility mask requirement, it was met with resistance from Kevin McCardle, who was the first councilman to speak out against it, calling the ordinance an "overreach."
"I think the general public is smart enough to make their own decisions that are best for their own health. That's their right, and I won't ever try to take that away," McCardle said during the Oct. 19 meeting in response to Tjarks' first proposed mask measure.
It was at that very moment, a divide was beginning to form between the eight-person governing body, with one side supporting the mask mandate, while the other strongly opposed.
For Tjarks, the mask mandate was what she called the most "appropriate response" to Davison County's surging cases of COVID-19 at the time it was floated in late October. While Tjarks said her decision in support of the mask ordinance was merely an "act of compassion" and "following the advice of top health experts," little did she know it would become one of the most polarizing topics many of the council members say they have ever faced.
"The hardest part of it for me was I felt like I was following what my conscience, my heart and the people I trusted around me were telling me to do. But it was really hard to do that and be so viciously despised for it," Tjarks said. "It was so hard to suddenly be at odds with the men on the council who I have considered my good friends for a long time. I feel like we have been really good at working together as a council and balancing each other out well, but we were anything but unified. I mean we were split pretty much down the middle."
'Could have died'
After nearly a month went by following the first debate on the mask topic, Davison County got hit with its largest peak of infections, leading to an overflow in COVID-19 patients at Avera Queen of Peace hospital. In mid-November, Davison County ranked as the 11th highest rate of infection per capita and suddenly a few deaths hit close to home for some council members.
As the virus was ravaging through the community in early November and active cases were climbing above 800 at that time, John Doescher said imposing a mask mandate was a matter of life and death for the vulnerable population, which primarily included anyone above the age of 60 and those with pre-existing health conditions.
"I didn't want to wait five days for the second reading, because five days was another 500 people who can get infected. And worse yet, those infected people in our community could have died," Doescher said.
Throughout the heated mask debate, it was clear that the community was just as divided on the subject, which only intensified the council's rift. After a large group of Mitchell residents, including many local doctors and nurses, signed a petition that called on the council to impose a citywide mask mandate, pressure was mounting on the council to respond. However, another sizable group formed and circulated their own petition in opposition of a citywide mask requirement, setting the stage for a dramatic vote.
At the Nov. 16 meeting, in front of a packed Corn Palace filled with residents who were on both sides of the mask debate, the entire council would have to reveal its stance on the mask mandate for the first time since the start of the pandemic. Tjarks, Doescher, Dan Sabers, Steve Rice and Dan Allen were among the council members who sided with the citywide mask mandate, ultimately giving them the narrow majority to approve the measure in November.
"We are elected to serve the public and help the city grow, and that includes protecting the public. I wouldn't take back any of my decisions to help protect the public," said Allen, who had a bout with COVID-19 early on in the pandemic. "I think the masks have worked, even though I know there will always be some naysayers out there. When this thing first hit, nobody knew what we were really dealing with."
Sabers' support for masks also centered around the advice from local health care professionals, who he said he "trusted his life with."
That left Smith, McCardle and Marty Barington as the three councilmen who opposing a mask requirement. While their opposition centered around respecting civil liberties and enforcement concerns, Barington said he worried it would further split an already divided community at the time.
"I totally respect all the frontline workers, but I'm going to stand behind the military soldier who spoke. That gentleman said it perfectly, he defended our country to give us the individual rights that we have in this country," Barington said during the Nov. 16 meeting. "I don't think it's my right to sit here and take rights away from others. I believe businesses have the right to say no masks, no service. We shouldn't have to tell them how to operate their business."
Drawing national attention
Following the council's 5-3 approval of the mask ordinance, the Mitchell community found itself on a national stage for reasons that were anything but positive.
On the front page of the Washington Post in December was a story that detailed the surging cases and deaths Mitchell was experiencing during the heat of the mask mandate debate. However, some council members who agreed to interview with the Washington Post were later disappointed with the story, calling it "unfair" and an "inaccurate portrayal of the community."
As one of the council members who interviewed for the Washington Post story, Smith said the article painted Mitchell as a community full of COVID-19 deniers and anti-maskers. But in reality, he knew that was far from the truth. After all, he pointed to the group of over 500 Mitchell residents who petitioned for a mask mandate — which was left out of the Washington Post article — as an example that showed the community was taking the virus seriously.
"I think it was a tremendous learning experience for us to understand these national news outlets have an agenda and an angle they are trying to drill home that may be far from the real picture," Smith said. "When the Washington Post came in, they caught us at a vulnerable time. We just lost a great friend, Buck Timmins, and that made it more difficult. In all reality, I believe the national news companies were not coming in here to report the hard news. Instead, they had an agenda that tell the full story of our community."
After the article circulated throughout the country, painting Mitchell in what some council members believe was a "very negative light," the community was once again back in the national spotlight when Tjarks appeared on CNN.
During the live interview with a CNN anchor, Tjarks criticized Gov. Kristi Noem for her handling of the pandemic, citing a lack of leadership. Although Tjarks was already facing public criticism for her stance on the mask mandate, she said her decision to go on CNN sparked perhaps the most backlash she received in her time on the council.
While Tjarks stands firm in her belief that Gov. Noem could have guided the state through the pandemic better, she emphasized her intentions were not to damage Mitchell and the state. Just as she's stated all along, wearing a mask to mitigate COVID-19 should not be politicized. For Tjarks, the politicization of mask-wearing was largely responsible for the divisiveness it created among the council and the community.
"I feel like we were in a little bit of denial," says Mitchell, South Dakota, Councilwoman Susan Tjarks, a Republican who faced criticism for proposing a mask mandate.
"This isn't a political issue, it's not a Democrat virus and it's not a Republican virus." pic.twitter.com/QtyXa93mR9
— CNN (@CNN) December 10, 2020
"I felt like I needed to explain why I was fighting for what I was fighting for, because that is what the medical and science community told us. But the personal attacks were really hard to take, especially after I went on CNN and the Washington Post article came out," Tjarks said. "But I felt like I did what I had to do, and I'm very proud of the tremendous support I had for the mask mandate. It helped make me realize I am far from alone in my support for masks."
Although the council has been through a whirlwind dealing with the pandemic over the past year, Allen is optimistic for the future. With three vaccines available in the community, Allen said it's a sign that the council is on the backstretch of the virus.
"The light at the end of the tunnel is now very visible, and it's a light of hope and recovery," Allen said.
What happened to the past year? COVID. Here's a timeline of the whirlwind
Mayor's tie-breaking vote ends mask mandate
As the expiration date for the mask mandate was approaching in mid-January, yet again, the council faced a polarizing decision that was sure to spark backlash among the community, no matter the outcome. Staying consistent with their opposition to a mask ordinance, Barington, Smith and McCardle cast their votes to allow the mandate to expire.
Only this time, they gained a vote. Breaking away from his previous decision, Rice pointed to the near-identical rates of active cases dropping in cities that were with and without a mandate as a reason he sided with terminating the ordinance.
"People were saying the mandate was cause and effect for the drop in active cases. But then that means if there isn't a mandate in place in other counties, then the numbers shouldn't go down like ours did. Whether there was a mandate or not, they all went down at nearly the same rate," Rice said during a council meeting in January. "My issue isn't with mask-wearing, it's with the mandate. I have a problem, based on the comparisons, that a mandate is the correct thing to do."
With Rice's vote changed, it forced Mitchell Mayor Bob Everson to break the council's 4-4 tie. Without hesitation, Everson struck down the mask mandate extension and terminated the ordinance.
Smith said it was one of just three tie-breaking votes that he recalls the acting mayor making in 15 years he's been on the council.
"Having dissenting votes can be good, but very rarely do we end up with a 4-4 tie. But when it came to mask mandates, I honestly believe the community as a whole was nearly split down the middle on it as well," Smith said. "It was just another moment that showed how divided everyone is on masks."
In the wake of the pressure-packed decision, Everson said the near-equal declining infection rates among counties that were with and without a mask mandate over the same time period guided his vote. Considering Davison County's active cases have continued to slide since the decision was made to let the mandate expire roughly two months ago, dropping from 99 in late January to Friday's 49 active cases, it supports his belief that the declining cases were not exactly due to the mask mandate.
However, Everson said his decision to side against extending the mandate was not a sign of disrespect to mask supporters and medical experts who were calling for an extension. Rather, it was a decision based on data and gauging the entire community's sentiment on the mandate, he said.
"From the day we got our first case, things changed almost by the minute. Now that we've been able to look at data over long periods of time, we can see what is working and what is not, and data suggests mask mandates are not the answer," Everson said. "I have the utmost respect for our health care professionals, but I have to represent everyone to the best of my ability. That includes people who don't support mask mandates."
Without a doubt, Everson dubs the pandemic as the most "trying time" he's experienced as mayor. For Everson, the unknowns of the virus is what made it so difficult to navigate.
"There is no clear playbook for handling a virus that we've never seen before," Everson said. "The unknowns make it challenging, but it won't stop us from continuing to overcome it."