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Oxford divided on masks as City Council fails to vote on mask mandate

By the end of the Aug. 17, Oxford City Council meeting, an ordinance mandating masks within the city was neither passed nor denied. The meeting was standing room only as residents showed up to speak both for and against the proposed mask mandate.

Council was set to decide whether to pass an emergency measure requiring masks to be worn indoors and on public transportation in response to the rapid spread of the delta variant of COVID-19 across the United States.

However, emergency ordinances require a supermajority of six out of seven councilors to vote in favor to pass. Councilors Chantel Raghu and Jason Bracken were not present Tuesday night, forcing the measure to be tabled.

Raghu sent a letter to City Manager Doug Elliott explaining her absence from the meeting and offering support for the mask mandate.

Raghu’s parents, who live in Texas, were both infected with COVID-19 despite being vaccinated. Her father remained in the hospital for eight days on oxygen before returning home to continue oxygen therapy. Days later, her mother was rushed to the hospital.

“I have watched my normally chatty dad gasp for air as he tries to tell me his wishes for after he passes,” Raghu wrote.

Raghu compared the situation in Texas, where COVID cases have skyrocketed and the governor has avoided passing mask legislation, to the situation in Oxford, where cases remain low but could soon be impacted by the return of Miami students to campus from around the country.

“While the governor of Texas plays games,” Raghu wrote, “people will continue to die and hospitals will continue to be overrun.”

Because both Raghu and Bracken weren’t present, any vote on the mask mandate would have been as a regular ordinance rather than an emergency measure, meaning it would need to be revisited at the next meeting before going into effect.

City Attorney Chris Conard said Council could also call a special meeting to vote on the measure when six or more councilors would be present.

Even though the ordinance wasn’t voted on, Council still heard comments from the public and offered their own opinions on whether a mask mandate would be necessary.

Resident Kathie Brinkman spoke in support of the mask mandate, saying she worried for the health of her grandchildren who are not yet old enough to receive the vaccine. For them, she said, masks are their only line of defense.

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“We’re not asking people to be mandated to receive the vaccine,” Brinkman said. “We’re asking people to put a cloth over their face.”

Nadia Hoffman, an Oxford resident since 1983, said a mask ordinance was in the best interest of the community, even if some individuals disagreed with it.

“With individual rights also come responsibilities, and that includes responsibilities to the common good,” Hoffman said.

Other residents disagreed with the mask mandate, however.

Dana Dunnegan said she accepted the personal risk of not wearing a mask and that others should be free to do so as well.

“If we look around the room, those who want to have a mask on have a mask on,” Dunnegan said. “If you don’t want to risk your life — I see many of you have your masks on — that’s your choice.”

For Eric England, changing guidance from scientific experts made it hard to accept a mask mandate. While he might wear one in crowded rooms out of common courtesy, he said, he was against an official mandate.

“Science has data, and it’s an opinion for a moment, until it changes,” England said. “The world’s flat until it’s not. The vaccines are effective until they’re not … No one chooses when and where [to die], and I appreciate that we may want to consider the other person’s well-being, but to mandate that, I think, is overstepping bounds.”

Vice-mayor Bill Snavely said individual freedoms ended when their choices had a direct negative impact on others.

“I think for example that I have the freedom to swing my arms, but that freedom stops when I hit my neighbor’s nose,” Snavely said.

Councilor Glenn Ellerbe agreed with Snavely and compared the pandemic to the angel of death in Exodus. Vaccines and masks, he said, are like the mark that protected Jewish households when the angel came to Egypt.

While Ellerbe supported having a mask mandate on hand, he didn’t think it should be enforced until Butler County’s healthcare system says rising COVID cases warrant its implementation.

“I believe that a mask mandate needs to exist on paper,” Ellerbe said. “I do not believe that it needs to be enforced today, but the moment that our healthcare system says the needle has moved and we need it … zero issue, pass the mandate.”

Council will meet again at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 7, in the Oxford Courthouse unless councilors decide to call a special meeting to vote on the mask mandate before that point.