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Oxford will once again require masks this semester

After weeks of discussion and setbacks, Oxford City Council voted to reenact a city-wide mask mandate at its Jan. 18 meeting, effective immediately.

The measure passed as an emergency ordinance, meaning it needed the support of six out of seven councilors to pass but will not need to be revisited at the next meeting.

At the Jan. 4 meeting, Councilor Glenn Ellerbe voiced his dissent for the measure, saying it was not in Council’s power to legislate behavior. His dissent, along with Councilor Jason Bracken’s absence, was enough to block the ordinance’s passage until the next meeting.

“The only way that you know if you’re safe from this is if you stay home,” Ellerbe said at this week’s meeting.

In addition to the mask mandate, Council passed a resolution recommending that residents get vaccinated and wear masks in public indoor spaces. While the resolution encourages but does not require masks indoors, the emergency ordinance’s requirement of indoor masking applies until March 1.

Ellerbe joined the other councilors in unanimously passing the resolution, a measure he suggested at last week’s meeting.

“I am not against masks or vaccines, in fact it’s the opposite,” Ellerbe said. “I want everybody in this town to be vaccinated.”

While past mask ordinances in Oxford have loosely defined what would fulfill the face covering requirement, the original draft of the Jan. 18 ordinance defined face masks as “three-ply surgical mask[s], KN95 masks, or N 95 masks.” Cloth masks, bandanas and gaiters were excluded.

Councilors David Prytherch and Chantel Raghu spoke against the refined definition because of limited access to specific types of masks.

“There’s an equity problem there,” Raghu said. “Not everyone has access to the best mask.”

Prytherch proposed an amendment to extend the definition of face masks, which passed with six votes. Mayor Bill Snavely voted against the change, citing CDC guidance on mask efficacy.

“Am I worried that I’m gonna go to the hospital?” Snavely asked. “No, not really … but I have friends who are. I’m gonna be visiting my 98 year old father in law, so I’m by God gonna wear this mask every day until I do.”

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The ordinance comes just days before Miami University’s 18,000 students are set to return to Oxford. While Council has been discussing a new mandate since December, Councilors Ellerbe and Alex French said the timing feels targeted.

“I wish we would have just extended the mandate [in December],” French said. “The optics of this are bad. Because we have waited until now to vote on this, it looks like we’re doing this solely because the students are returning, and that is not true.”

Unlike the mask ordinance in August, the requirement doesn’t directly address the return of students. But Ellerbe said the ordinance does represent targeted rule changes when school is in session, like Oxford’s DORA, which allows open consumption of alcohol Uptown when students are away from campus during breaks.

“It’s very obvious that this is a discriminatory act,” Ellerbe said. “It doesn’t matter if the text was stricken from it anyway, it targets [students].”

Despite the optics, the mandate passed with six votes. Ellerbe dissented after suggesting an amendment to exempt vaccinated individuals which failed to pass.

Council will meet again at 7:30 p.m. Feb 1, in the Oxford Courthouse. Residents who wish to watch the meeting but can’t make it to the location can find a livestream on the city website.