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Anniston council mulls return to masks in city buildings

Members of Anniston’s City Council discussed the possibility of bringing back a mask mandate for city facilities Tuesday, as the delta variant of COVID-19 swelled the ranks of patients at a local hospital.

“It’s very obvious and evident that we unfortunately are going through another round of this COVID situation,” Councilwoman Ciara Smith said. “I had hoped that this year would be a lot different, but here we are.”

Council members held their regular meeting at the Anniston City Meeting Center Tuesday, with a plan to discuss the budget and other city business. During a work session before the meeting, Smith proposed that the city return to the mask mandate the city imposed earlier this year, requiring masks inside city buildings. That order expired in early July.

Since then, COVID cases have skyrocketed in Alabama, with more than 1,600 people in the state now hospitalized with the virus, 32 of them at Anniston’s Regional Medical Center. A doctor at RMC said Tuesday that four people had died of COVID-19 in a 24-hour period, the worst one-day death toll there since the pandemic began. State health officials say the fast-spreading delta variant —  and the low level of immunization in the state — are to blame.

Smith said she personally dislikes masks, and stopped wearing them after she was vaccinated — though she started again after a recent meeting with a local nonprofit. At that meeting, a doctor in attendance urged everyone to mask up.

Like staying for a hurricane

Councilman D. D. Roberts said he had long worried that another surge was coming.

“Once the vaccination project began, everybody got lax,” he said.

Roberts said a failure to get vaccinated was akin to a refusal to leave a home in the path of a hurricane after an evacuation order.

Councilwoman Millie Harris expressed frustration that people who’ve already had the shot would need to return to pandemic-control measures because of others who haven’t gotten the shot.

“It’s basic civics,” she said. “Your rights end where they infringe on the rights of others.”

Harris wondered aloud if businesses might require employees to get the vaccine. State law, passed this year, prohibits schools and government agencies from imposing COVID vaccination requirements.

“I’ve never been a big fan of any kind of government oversight,” said Councilman Jay Jenkins. Jenkins described the mask mandate idea as “almost a panicky response,” and said he hoped the infection rate from delta would decline as it did in the United Kingdom after its first wave of delta.

Jenkins said the surge of delta is adding demand at hospitals that could get in the way of people who need non-COVID treatment.

“Not putting a mask on, not getting a vaccine, not doing the things that responsible individuals do to try to curb this is impacting other people’s lives, and I don’t know what the answer is,” Jenkins said.

It's time for a vaccination

After the meeting, in response to a reporter’s question, Jenkins said he is not vaccinated, but plans to get a shot Friday. He said the spread of delta, combined with his position on the council — and as an appointee to the health care authority that runs Regional Medical Center — convinced him to get the shot.

“I  do believe that in this instance it’s incumbent on me, both as a member of the council and a member of the health care authority, and seeing the effect it’s having on our hospital, that it’s important for me to take that step and receive the vaccine,” he said.

The council didn’t vote on Smith’s proposal. Council members meet again Aug. 17.

In other business, the council approved an agreement to put $150,000 into a $300,000 incentives package offered by the Calhoun County Economic Development Commission to Tru Wood Cabinetry, an Ashland company that last month announced plans to open a new facility at the former site of Monarch Windows on Akers Road.

Monarch closed in June 2020, an apparent casualty of the pandemic economic slump. At a June meeting with the council, Tru Cabinetry officials said they hoped to create up to 150 jobs over the next three years. The council passed the measure 4-0 Tuesday with no discussion.

The council postponed a planned vote on a proposed $42.5 million city budget for 2022. That budget proposal includes pay raises averaging 2.5 percent for city employees, with additional bonuses for the police department, where many of the positions that are funded in the current budget remain unfilled.

Jenkins said at earlier meetings that he hoped to change some elements of the pay plan to better reward long-term employees. Jenkins said Tuesday that his changes weren’t ready, and the council voted 4-0 in favor of his request to postpone.

Mayor Jack Draper wasn’t present at the meeting, and Smith presided over the event as vice-mayor. 

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.