A divided Tifton City Council voted Monday night to mandate the wearing of face masks within the city in response to the current surge of the coronavirus.
“This is serious," said Councilman Jack Folk. "We can’t wait. ... This is life or death. Tift County is the reddest of the red,” referring to the county’s Red Zone designation for a high number of positive cases of COVID-19.
Folk moved to enact a mask mandate, seconded by Councilman M. Jay Hall. Folk and Hall were joined by Councilman Johnny Terrell to approve the ordinance. Mayor Julie B. Smith and Vice Mayor Wes Ehlers voted against it.
“I understand the concern. I just don’t know if this is the right thing for our community if we don’t have regional or county support,” Smith said. “My concern is how do we enforce something like this?"
The mayor said that she “doesn’t feel it will be effective if it’s not done on a statewide or, at least, a regional level.” She asked how people will know whether they are in the city or county along some areas of the city borders.
“If we pass this right now ... it will cause more confusion,” Smith said, suggesting that action be delayed until Tift County, Omega and Ty Ty have a chance to decide their approach.
“Sometimes you have to lead,” Folk said. “Lead, not follow.” He added, “We’ve gone beyond ‘Let’s talk about it.' ... To not do something is letting the citizens, the people down."
Ehlers said that "there’s no way to enforce a mask mandate,” and that, "I don’t think you can place a fine or penalty on anyone.” He attempted to remove from the mask ordinance any penalty for not wearing a mask, but his proposal died when no one supported the change.
Under the ordinance, violators will first be warned, then could face possible penalties of $25 for a first offense and $50 for subsequent offenses.
Alex Le, vice president & chief operating officer at Tift Regional Medical Center, told City Council that the hospital is seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases.
"We're getting close to capacity," Le said. "The general consensus at the hospital is that things will maintain or get worse; it's not going to get better in the short term.” Le said that the coronavirus is "very real in our community, and wearing a mask does help."
Folk said that he realizes some people will refuse to abide by the mask mandate. But if more residents wear a mask, an additional five or 10 people could possibly be kept from having to be admitted to the hospital, he said.
After council voted 3-2 to pass the ordinance, the mayor said, "We have a mask mandate.” Looking toward Police Chief Steve Hyman, Smith added, “Good luck, Chief, enforcing that."