Montgomery County

Montgomery County officials speak out against state mask mandate

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FONDA — Coronavirus cases are spiking again in Montgomery County at the same time a statewide mask mandate has taken effect. Yet, county officials discussing the new mandate did not go so far as to encourage residents to wear masks in public spaces. Instead, they called on community members to respect the decisions of others and either comply or leave businesses if asked to wear face coverings.

In the county’s first COVID-19 update over Facebook Live since May, Montgomery County Public Health Director Sara Boerenko on Monday was clear that the coronavirus “is real” and has claimed the lives of local residents, devastating surviving friends and family.

But she said mandates closing businesses and schools and limiting in-person contact have negatively impacted mental health and left some local businesses and community members begging for assistance to overcome the resulting financial burdens.

“With that being said, I have to let our community know, as the public health director, I cannot support this mask mandate,” Boerenko said. “I have worked, my staff has worked, county employees have worked, but most importantly, you as residents of Montgomery County have worked really hard for us to fall back into a senseless mandate for masks at this point.”

The statewide mask mandate announced last week by Gov. Kathy Hochul that took effect on Monday requires all individuals to wear a face mask in public indoor settings unless a vaccine requirement has been implemented by the establishment. The mandate intended to combat surging infection rates across the state runs through at least Jan. 15.

Boerenko said her office cannot dedicate resources to enforcing the mask mandate handed down from the governor’s office and claimed the requirement falls outside of recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“When we look at the CDC guidelines and look at the language and verbiage coming from the CDC, never once in any of the verbiage does it say mandate. It says recommendation, so the fact that we are adopting something that goes against even what the CDC is saying is just mind-boggling for me,” Boerenko said.

However, current guidance from the CDC states, “people, including children older than two, should wear a mask in indoor public places if they are not fully vaccinated, fully vaccinated and in an area with substantial or high transmission or fully vaccinated and with weakened immune systems.”

Every county across the state is currently considered to have high rates of coronavirus transmission with 100 or more news cases per 100,000 residents or a test positivity rate of 10% or higher on average over the last seven days, according to data from the CDC.

There have been 281 new coronavirus infections among Montgomery County residents and the test positivity rate has reached 11.7% over the last seven days, according to data from the CDC. Over the same week last year, approximately 166 residents tested positive for the virus, according to data from the state Department of Health.

Although public health experts have repeatedly stated that face masks help prevent the spread of the virus, Boerenko said only that wearing face coverings “should be a choice.”

“If you’re sick, please stay home. Call your primary care provider. Continue to wash your hands. If you choose to wear a mask, please do so to keep yourself safe, but do not act out in anger against someone who is keeping themselves healthy and taking precautions and has made a choice not to wear a mask,” Boerenko said.

Montgomery County Executive Matthew Ossenfort similarly expressed opposition to the mask mandate during the update.

“Where I have a problem personally with what is happening is the use of the word mandate,” Ossenfort said. “The community has responded the way we should and we should be given the benefit of the doubt. Give us the information, make the recommendations, even strongly make the recommendations, but the mandates to me are too much, frankly.”

Both Boerenko and Ossenfort touted the county’s 62.5% overall total vaccination rate for all residents as demonstrating that community members have been doing their part to protect themselves and others from the virus. That vaccination rate is even higher at approximately 95% for residents of 65 or older who are at greatest risk from severe infection or death.

Ossenfort went on to say the mandate is unnecessary as the county is “not where we were a year ago.”

“I think we need to keep things in perspective, try to take a positive attitude with it,” Ossenfort said. “Our vaccination rates are where they need to be. Our local hospitals and healthcare centers have been doing a fantastic job. We know how to treat the virus and the pieces are in place.”

Yet, since the beginning of the month, six residents from Montgomery County have died from the coronavirus, according to data from the DOH. By comparison, five residents died from coronavirus over the same period last year. A total of 28 county residents died from coronavirus in December 2020.

St. Mary’s Healthcare was caring for 21 coronavirus patients as of Monday, according to a spokesperson, who described the caseload as one of the higher inpatient counts the hospital has cared for recently. By comparison, the spokesperson said the facility treated over 30 coronavirus-positive individuals as inpatients during the height of the pandemic.

Data on available hospital capacity at St. Mary’s was not immediately available. Approximately 82.69% of intensive care unit beds and 19.5% of acute care beds in the county were in use, according to data from the CDC.

Montgomery County Sheriff Jeffery Smith said his department will not be responsible for enforcing the mask mandate, but cautioned that anyone who fails to comply with requests of business owners to wear a mask or leave the establishment may face criminal charges.

“The store owners, the property owners do have the right to dictate who they serve and who they allow into their store, just like you do at your homes,” Smith said.

Anyone who fails to comply with an order to wear a mask or leave an establishment is committing criminal trespassing, Smith said.

“If the store calls, we have to respect the rights of the property owner. If they pursue criminal charges, it is our duty and we are tasked with enforcing the laws of the state to keep peace and to keep people doing the proper thing,” Smith said.

The sheriff urged residents to respect the requests of business owners who could face fines for failure to enforce the mask mandate. A violation of any provision of the face mask measure is subject to civil and criminal penalties, including a maximum fine of $1,000 for each violation.

“We just ask you use common sense, respect others and understand where store owners may be coming from,” Smith said.

Reach Ashley Onyon at [email protected] or @AshleyOnyon on Twitter.

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