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CHARLES TOWN — After rejecting a requirement that Charles Town employees be vaccinated against a coronavirus infection, City Council members voted 4-3 to adopt a mandatory mask-wearing policy as reports of COVID-19 cases were increasing across Jefferson County. 

“We’re making a policy so that we don’t have an outbreak that makes us limit our continuity of government because half the staff is sick,” offered Councilman Jeff Hynes. 

Hynes was one of four council members who supported the mask mandate during the hurriedly called meeting last Tuesday. That action came after a nearly two-hour discussion amid what some council members said was a growing health safety concern among a few city employees. The discussion also came amid sharpening public debates over shifting COVID guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; over whether Gov. Jim Justice should reimpose a statewide mask mandate; and after the Jefferson County Board of Education adopted a mask mandate for students and school employees.

Under the mask measure the council majority adopted, city employees or citizens over the age of 2 must don a mouth-and-nose covering inside city buildings. City workers must also wear masks even if they have been fully vaccinated and are outside and unable to physically distance themselves from others.

An exception was made to allow employees to avoid wearing a mask inside a building if they can isolate themselves from others, such as while working alone in an office. 

Masks must be worn as long as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention no longer considers Jefferson County a “high or substantial” area of COVID transmission.

Last week the CDC listed Jefferson County as an area of “high transmission” for the virus. Last week the agency’s website listed the county as showing a 28 percent rise in known COVID infections standing at 147 cases among its 57,000 residents, with five new hospital admissions due to coronavirus infections.

Hynes joined council members Julie Philabaum and Michael George to call for the special meeting and voted for the mask mandate with councilwoman Elizabeth Ricketts. 

Council members Jean Petti, Rikki Twyford and Jim Kratovil voted against the measure. They each said they preferred to wait for an internal ad hoc COVID policy development committee to weigh in with recommendations before taking action. Mayor Bob Trainor and three city managers have been serving on the committee. 

“To some degree, we have to trust, we have to place some faith in our employees, and I think we definitely have to place faith in the policy development team to work through all the scenarios we’ve been talking about, and even those scenarios we haven’t thought about,” Twyford said. “I just think if we have already set up a way to work through this, to talk to people and to go through different scenarios, we should trust them.”

The COVID policy committee was formed early during the pandemic to shape and implement the city’s safety measures, including a mask-wearing policy when Justice had earlier imposed one statewide. 

City Manager Daryl Hennessy, a committee member, said the views of employees have been continually requested and considered throughout the pandemic. 

Hennessy, police Chief Chris Kutcher and Kristen Stolipher, manager of the city’s utility system, all committee members, had asked the council to allow the committee to meet again and develop a recommendation before the council imposed a mask mandate. 

“I would encourage you not to, you know, be forceful with this kind of stuff,” Kutcher said. “I see morale issues, especially if you try to force someone to get a shot that they don’t want to get. … I just don’t think [a mask mandate] would be a positive thing when you ask how the employees feel about it.”

“We did spend a lot of time in working through the logistics to keep our staff safe,” Stolipher said. “We’ve got lots of different circumstances. I think everybody, you know, complied with the masks. I don’t think that’s as much of an issue with our staff. But I do think we need to be strategic and thorough in developing a policy because we do have so many different circumstances.”

Hennessy said few city employees have expressed a wish for a new workplace mask mandate. “I certainly think that there are some people at City Hall that would welcome a mask mandate return, but I wouldn’t say that that’s the consensus view,” he said. 

Noting that city employees haven’t been prevented from wearing masks, Hennessy said very few employees have been voluntarily wearing masks. “I’ve seen a little of it, and I’ve seen a little bit of it in the last week,” he said. “But in the last couple of months I have not seen anybody wearing a mask.”

Prompting by a question from Hynes, Hennessy said a handful of city employees had been infected with the coronavirus during the pandemic, but he added that none of the infections appeared to be transmitted at City Hall. 

“Certainly, we didn’t have a perfect record. I mean, people did get sick,” Hennessy said. “Part of that was a result of maybe the work they were doing. I think if we probably went back and tracked it, maybe there are more examples of it [being] contracted it outside of the work.”

“I would also say again when somebody fell sick we did a lot of things [to keep employees as safe as possible],” he added. “We really did follow a lot--like every other employer, I think--what we think was a pretty strict standard. … I think we’ve been a good employer up to this point. I still feel like we’re a good employer.”

The council members broadly agreed to revisit their decision during a regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday, after the policy committee meets. The council members also decided to add the council’s personnel committee chairman to the COVID committee, a position that George currently holds.

The council decided to take action before the COVID committee was scheduled to meet last Tuesday. After the council’s action, however, the committee moved up its meeting to last Friday.

Trainor was out of town on vacation and unable to call for and attend a special meeting until two days afterward. If the mayor had voted against the mask mandate, the measure would have failed. 

Reached after the meeting, Trainor wouldn’t say, because he didn’t attend the discussion, whether he would have voted for a mask mandate or not. He added that he didn’t want to be perceived as criticizing, or “dissing,” as he put it, other council members for their decision afterward. 

Another council member, Kevin Tester, also could not attend the meeting. Tester, a recent council member who was tapped last month to fill an unexpired Ward 2 council term, was scheduled to be sworn in. But he could not attend because he was being treated in a hospital for a COVID infection.

After the meeting, Philabaum said she, Hynes and George agreed that the council needed to take action as soon as possible due to a resurgent spread of the virus. “We all agreed this was very time-sensitive, and we didn’t want to wait,” she said. “And there’s really no reason we would have to make special arrangements just for one person on council.”

Philabaum and Hynes said a few city employees had approached them about their hopes of having a mask requirement imposed for city employees. “There’s a lot of concerns about [the city’s COVID safety] policy not being up to what the current guidelines were,” she said. “It seemed like they were not interested in doing masks again unless the governor mandated it because masks have unfortunately become a political issue.”

Philabaum and Hynes also supported imposing a mandatory vaccination requirement for city employees during the meeting, but that proposal failed to gain votes from other council members to pass. Council members, however, informally agreed to seek legal advice on whether a mandatory vaccination requirement for city staff would or might be lawful. 

George said he was reluctant to require employees to be vaccinated. However, he asked that attorneys look at the legality of requiring staff to become vaccinated. “Several cities have been sued and lost,” he added. “I’m not ready to do that without legal counsel.”

Hennessy asked council members if they impose a proposed mandate to require all employees to become fully vaccinated by a Nov. 21 deadline, whether they were willing to fire any employee who does not comply with the order. “Are you prepared to fire the employee who does not get vaccinated?” he asked. “That will be the question—because that’s the enforcement. 

 “If you mandate it and they don’t do it, you have to let that employee go, I think--unless you think there’s another option.” 

 City officials pointed out that about half of the city’s employees have currently decided to receive a COVID vaccination during the council meeting. Hennessy didn’t immediately respond to a request to learn how many city employees will be affected by the mask mandate.

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