A rural Oklahoma community's mandate requiring face masks to be worn in public has generated a flurry of controversy.

Stilwell Mayor Jean Ann Wright announced that as of Wednesday night, July 8, face masks will be required in public areas and businesses open to the public. Infectious disease specialist Dr. Gitanjali Pai has also weighed in on the pandemic and the spread of the virus.

The Stilwell City Council released a resolution on Wednesday. It indicates that the city, having been "empowered by a state statute," has proclaimed a state of emergency due to the threat to life, health, property and public peace. The resolution cites the acceleration of COVID-19 in the county, and recommendations by numerous epidemiologists that wearing a mask covering mouth and nostrils prevents and slows the spread of the virus. The resolution also states that every person working, living, visiting or doing business in the city of Stilwell shall wear a face covering consistent with CDC guidelines and maintain social distancing.

Reactions have run the gamuet from gratitude to threats, to questioning the city's authority to make such a decision.

On the Facebook page of the Tahlequah Daily Press, a sister newspaper to the Stilwell Democrat-Journal, there were more than 360 reactions, 215 comments, and 756 shares as of Wednesday afternoon. While about half the comments were positive, some were extremely hostile and claimed the mandate is unconstitutional.

Brenda Madden, Stilwell Chamber of Commerce president, echoed what many people said off the record.

"I understand that, first and foremost, people need to be protected. However, I also believe it should be up to the individual businesses to decide whether or not to require masks in their establishments," said Madden.

About 10 business owners declined to comment for a story. In a small town, they all agreed, they can't afford to alienate anyone by taking a side and risking the loss of customers.

Lindsey Miller, at Wild One Boutique and Salon, said she has friends on both sides of the spectrum.

"I want to be there for them," said Miller, and declined further comment.

She's ordered more masks to help provide for the community.

Dianna Yell, director of Adair County Emergency Management, is a member of the Adair County COVID Task Force.

"I agree with masks. Our number of positive cases have been climbing, and I worry with schools getting back started in a few weeks, I would like to see our numbers slow before our kids go back to school," said Yell.

Task force members also include County Commissioner Mike Wininger; Amanda Elfezazzi, with the Adair County Health Department; Dr Jeff Jenkins, Stilwell Memorial Hospital; Mike Little, Pafford Emergency Management Services; Adair County Sheriff Jason Ritchie; Westville Mayor Tony Barker; John Ford with the city of Watts; District Judge Jeff Payton; and District Attorney Jack Thorp.

Stilwell Schools Superintendent Geri GIlstrap said guidance has been changing daily, and students and staff are at the forefront of concern.

"In our re-entry plans, we have stated that we highly recommend students and teachers wear a mask, but we have many students and some teachers who are asthmatic or have special needs that interfere with the wearing of a mask," Gilstrap said. "But there will be exceptions to this due to individual health concerns. Discussions are ongoing and we will continue to take all current updated guidance from Centers for Disease Control, Oklahoma State Department of Health and Oklahoma State Department of Education."

Most businesses are already following the guidelines.

Adriana Scott, executive vice president and chief brand officer for Carson Community Bank, said they abide by all federal, state, and local laws and have been following the CDC guidelines since the onset of the pandemic.

"Our top priorities have been the health and financial safety of our employees and customers. Our employees have been wearing masks when they are within 6 feet of others," she said. "We've also created processes to ensure the safety of our branches by hiring greeters who verify the identity of customers wearing masks before they enter the bank. We're prepared to continue with these practices given the new mandate by the mayor."

Several business managers said they were glad for the city's endorsement of wearing masks.

Stilwell Public Library Branch Manager Kathleen Connelly-Brown said staff members have been wearing masks continually since they returned to the building May 4.

"We did so to protect each other as we worked," she said.

As of June 1, when the library re-opened to the public, staff encouraged patrons to wear masks. Most patrons respected that, but some did not, and that made it more difficult to help them.

"In fact, we would be unable to help computer users unless they wore a mask because physical distance is impossible to maintain in that scenario," Connelly-Brown said. "Now that the mayor has mandated mask usage, we have the assurance of better protection from COVID."

At Everything Nice/Coco's Bistro, Collene Stephenson said she doesn't particularly like the mandate because it's hard to breathe and steams up her glasses.

"It's like practicing safe sex; most people should do it," said Stephenson.

Gitanjali Pai, M.D., infectious disease physician at Memorial Hospital and Physicians Clinic in Stilwell, supports the task force's actions.

"I would like to applaud our mayor, Jean Ann Wright, and the COVID-19 Task Force for making this very difficult decision and recommending and implementing this mask mandate for wearing a face mask for businesses open to the public," said Pai.

In a recent open letter to Americans, three groups -- the American Hospital Association, American Medical Association, and American Nurses Association - wrote: "We are urging the American public to take the simple steps we know will help stop the spread of the virus: wearing a face mask, maintaining physical distancing, and washing hands." The authors noted that "we are now watching in real-time as a dramatic uptick in COVID-19 cases is erasing our hard-won gains."

"'At this point, we have a lot of data, as well as modeling studies, highlighting the effectiveness of wearing face masks," said Pai.

Masks serve as "source control," and reduce the spray of droplets when worn over the nose and mouth, said Pai.

"It not only protects you from you, but also protects others from you," she said.

This works most effectively at a population level, when widely used.

"So the more all of us can do to curb the spread of this virus - which as yet has neither a cure nor a vaccine for the next several months - in the form of maintaining distancing, wearing face masks, and hand hygiene, the better and safer it will be for us all, not only in terms of our health medically, but also from the economic standpoint," she said.

Renee Fite is editor of the Stilwell Democrat-Journal and Westville Reporter.

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