Mask Mandate For Indoor Public Spaces Passed By Township Council

Masks will have to be worn indoors when 6-foot distances between people cannot be maintained. Enforcement question remains murky.

The Council’s decision was not unanimous.

Masks must be worn in indoor public places in the township if a 6-foot distance cannot be maintained, according to a resolution passed by the Township Council in a December 28 special meeting.

The mandate applies to those aged 2 years and older, and exempts those with medical issues precluding them from wearing a mask.

The resolution, which “sunsets” on February 8, 2022 – unless it is rescinded earlier by the Council – comes in the wake of steep increases in the number of Franklin residents who have tested positive for Covid-19.

The vote was not unanimous. Councilman Carl Wright (D-Ward 4) voted against the mandate, even though, he said, he supported the idea of wearing masks.

“If you made this a recommendation, I’m all with you,” he said. “Mandate, I can’t do it.”

There was also some question about how the mandate would be enforced. The consensus seemed to be that businesses that did not comply would be shut down until they agreed to.

The Council’s action comes amid a surge of Franklin residents testing positive for the coronavirus.

More than 1,100 Franklin residents have tested positive for the virus since December 2, with nearly 500 of those residents testing positive for the virus between December 24 and 28, according to the township Office of Emergency Management.

In total, 8,451 Franklin residents have tested positive for the virus since mid-March, according to OEM. That translates to 12.4 percent, or 124 per 1,000 township residents, testing positive for the virus.

The deaths of 219 Franklin residents have been attributed to the virus.

Mayor Phil Kramer said that he started thinking about the mandate over the past few days, after he was contacted about it by Councilman Ram Anbarasan (D-At Large).

“Various councils around the state had been doing this,” Kramer said. “He (Anbarasan) contacted me and I started thinking about it.”

“The County took off several days of reporting our results to us, then reported on Monday 423 cases, an average of 100 cases a day,” Kramer said. “We were averaging typically maybe 30 cases a day. The highest we had before was in the low 70s, so this was an extraordinary number.”

Kramer said that the township’s 5-day and 7-day averages for new cases “show that it’s accelerating.”

Kramer said the township resolution was modeled after an executive order issued in Morristown.

As originally written, the mandate would have been in effect until it was rescinded by Township Manager Robert Vornlocker, after giving the Council 78 hours’ notice.

That didn’t sit well with Deputy Mayor James Vassanella. He first moved an amendment that would have set as February 22 the date that the resolution expires – or sunsets. That date was then changed to January, before it was moved to February 8, where it remained.

Vassanella also proposed that the minimum age be moved to 5 years old, but he received no support from the Council.

The mandate includes all “businesses and venues” in the township, and requires that all staff and customers or visitors wear a mask over their nose and mouth when within six feet of someone else.

In addition to those 2-years’ old and younger, the mandate exempts those who have a disability and cannot wear a mask, people for whom wearing a mask would create a risk to them concerning their work, or people who are eating and drinking inside restaurants.

If no action is taken by the Council, the mandate expires on February 8, 2022. The Township Manager can rescind the mandate after giving the Council 78 hours’ notice of his intent, and the Council can rescind it on its own.

Most Council members were supportive of the overall resolution. Councilwoman Crystal Pruitt (D-At Large) said she hoped the Council would be cognizant of any “overpolicing” that may happen as a result of the mandate.

“Anytime a body moves in this direction, I think we have to take responsibility of any impact, good and bad,” she said.

Anbarasan said that he thought the resolution “is more of a strong recommendation. I think it’s for the common good, it’s not meant to be punitive. I strongly support this resolution.”

Councilman Charles Onyejiaka pointed out that many corporations have mask mandates.

“We’re trying to protect our people,” he said. He also echoed Pruitt’s concern about how police “will handle it when they are called in.”

Councilwoman Kimberly Francois (D-At Large) said the Council was simply trying to set policy to protect residents. She said Vassanella had a “good point” on the age issue, but did not second his motion.

Councilwoman Shepa Uddin (D-Ward 2) said the Council has to ensure that residents are safe.

“We just have to keep in mind what type of mask we’re using,” she said. “We should continue ensuring that we focus on public safety.”

Kramer said that “not doing all we can would be an abrogation of our responsibilities. The governor has his own restrictions, he’s dealing with an entire state. We have the responsibility of Franklin.”

Wright said he didn’t want his opposition to the mandate to be misconstrued.

“I believe in wearing a mask,” he said. “I believe that everyone should wear a double mask. I believe everyone should have their Covid injection. I believe in everything that stops this scourge from moving from person to person.”

“This mandate is not working for me,” he said. “A recommendation is fine.”

The opinion of members of the public who called in to the meeting was split.

Michele Petersen said that she had citations of “peer-reviewed studies” that show that wearing masks does not work.

“The Council should consider all of those studies, and not just those fitting a certain agenda,” she said.

She also told the Council that Covid-19 testing appointments are hard to come by, and hoped Council members could do something about that.

Leah Convery said she was also against the mandate.

“This is coming off as a scared response to numbers,” she said.

Convery also objected to the initial wording of the resolution regarding when the mandate would be lifted.

Sarah Grundfest supported the mandate, and said that even wearing an ill-fitting mask was better than not having one at all.

“These numbers are so scary and for an older person like myself, every bit helps,” she said.

Susan Jurden said she was also in favor of the mandate.

Addressing Petersen’s claim about the efficacy of masks, Kramer said that some masks are not effective.

“I agree … someone takes a scarf and puts it over their face, it’s not effective,” he said.

“We do know that masks work,” said Kramer, who is a physician. “They’re not perfect, but they do help, and when I’m at work I wear them all day long and I insist that my patients and the people around me wear them.”

“Listening to Ms. Peterson, my thought was, define ‘work’,” Councilman Ted Chase (D-Ward 1) said. “Maybe cloth masks are 50 percent effective in stopping what one is exhaling and perhaps less than that in stopping what one is inhaling.”

But, he said, one still has less of a chance of being infected or infecting someone else if they are wearing a mask.

Wright said that businesses should be allowed to make up their own requirements.

“If you walk into a store and that store owner wants you to come in without a mask … if he wants to go down that road with you, let them go,” he said.

“If you can’t put teeth to this, if you can’t enforce it, then we’re just making a statement about mask mandates,” Wright said. “Are we just doing it to do it, or is there some way to enforce it.”

“My expectation would be that most stores would follow this instruction,” Chase said. “This will give them backup for enforcing a mask mandate in their store. If a store is reported as totally flouting this rule, and people report them to the police, the police can go round and tell them to shut down at least until all store personnel wear masks and all people entering the store wear masks.”

“I am hoping that most stores will follow this mandate and that if there are a number who insist on not following it, that we do have ways of enforcing it,” he said. “It might be the County Board of Health that we could call in to enforce it and shut them down if they don’t enforce this rule.”

“Best example we have is at a recent school board meeting, when one of the school board members refused to wear a mask, the police were called, and they handled it,” Kramer said, referring to an incident involving Board of Education member Pat Stanley.

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