Allegheny County Council rejects mask mandate proposal

Written By Caitlyn Scott, Co-News Editor

The Allegheny County Council rejected a proposal on Sept. 14 that would have instituted a county-wide mask mandate for indoor and outdoor gatherings to slow the spread of COVID-19. The council spurned the proposal as Allegheny County is reporting higher new coronavirus case counts in recent weeks.

“If the mandate would have been passed, the legislation would have taken effect immediately,” Ken Varhola, Chief of Staff for the Allegheny County Council said. “After that, it would have been up to the local governments to enforce.”

The legislation, sponsored by councilwomen Olivia Bennett and Bethany Hallam, would have required masks at gatherings exceeding more than 250 people. Those not following protocols would have received a $100 fine every time they were at one of these events maskless.

“This is not about being political,” Councilwoman Bennett said at the meeting discussing the proposal. “This is about keeping people alive.”

According to the Allegheny County Health Department, as of Sept. 27, there has been a report of 1,029 new COVID-19 cases within the last 72 hours. The department says that out of the new cases, 990 are confirmed and 39 are probable cases of the virus.

Within Allegheny County alone, KDKA News reported on Monday that there have been a total of 8,099 total hospitalizations and 119,718 total coronavirus cases since the pandemic started.

Along with majority concern, public comments were also taken into consideration, many voicing similar concerns to those on the Allegheny County Council.

“I am writing a request for you to not take up and not pass the requirement of mask wearing within Allegheny County,” a local resident said at that meeting. “The vaccines have been available since the February and March time frame in 2021. A majority of Allegheny County is vaccinated, the goal was never to end COVID, but to flatten the curve, the curve has been flattened.”

Despite strong opposition to the proposal, Samantha Hindman, a student at Point Park University, believes that a mandate like this is needed due to the high increases of COVID-19 within Pittsburgh.

“I feel as though a county-wide mask mandate wouldn’t only be beneficial, but has proven to be necessary,” Hindman said. “I recognize that some could feel as though a mask mandate is infringing upon their freedoms, but the glaring fact of the matter is that personal freedoms end and begin with yourself. We can’t become complacent now that the numbers are falling, we must be more vigilant and prepare for another inevitable wave.”

Despite growing cases and the legislation’s citation of a 24-page document supported by the Center of Disease Control and Prevention, “The Science of Masking to Control Covid-19,” the council rejected the proposed ordinance on a 2-10 vote. According to TribLive, the rejection comes as a majority of members voiced concerns over the bill’s initial objective towards the commonwealth of Allegheny County and its citizens.

“I believe that if you are concerned about your health, you should go and get vaccinated,” Councilman Sam Demarco said at the meeting. “I believe that if you’re vaccinated, and you’re still concerned, I believe you can wear a mask. I just don’t believe that it is this body’s rule to tell people how to live their lives.”

Councilman Nicholas Futules also voiced concern at the meeting over the legislation, wanting to support a recommendation request, rather than a county-wide mandate and fine for failure to comply.

“I couldn’t imagine a football game and 60,000 Steelers fans getting a ticket for not wearing a mask, that would be ridiculous,” Councilman Futules said.

The future of this failed legislation is currently uncertain. During the council meeting, Councilwoman Hallam said she believes that the mask mandate should be reevaluated and be fairly placed in front of the committee at another time.

“I think the only proper way to proceed forward with this is to have the committee have multiple meetings,” Councilwoman Hallam said. “I don’t think it is fair to not have public input on this issue before we vote up or down.”

If the bill was passed, it would have remained within legislation until April 30, 2022, unless appealed at an earlier date by the council.