PRINCETON — When Gov. Eric Holcomb converted a statewide mask mandate to a mask advisory earlier this week, he left the option open for local governments or businesses to still require people wear masks as a COVID-19 precautionary measure.
Holcomb’s mandate still applies to state buildings, COVID-19 vaccination and testing sites, and local schools through this school year.
Tuesday, Gibson County Commissioners voted unanimously to extend the mask mandate for people entering county government buildings, after length discussion of the topic.
Commissioner Ken Montgomery, the only person who didn’t wear a mask at Tuesday’s regular session at the North Annex meeting room, said it was the first time he’s been able to use his hearing aid without pulling it out with a mask.
Board of Commissioners President Warren Fleetwood said he checked with other counties, some of which have opted to follow the governor’s move from mandatory masks to advisory only in their counties.
“The health health department, obviously with the (COVID-19 case) numbers going up, appreciates the community wearing masks,” said Gibson County Health Department Nurse Administrator Diane Hornby. She said county health board members want to encourage people, “even if it’s not a mandate, that you wear your masks.” Hornby said she’s still concerned about the possibility of increases in cases following spring vacations and Easter holiday gatherings. “We know that it’s (wearing masks) the right thing to do. We strongly recommend that people continue wearing masks,” she said.
Gibson County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Patty Vanoven noted that there’s an outdoor event on the square this weekend.
County Attorney Jason Spindler asked commissioners to address the checkpoint screening at the Gibson County Courthouse in place now. Health department staff man the checkpoint, but he said some type of sign-off sheet for people who enter the building attesting that they are not experiencing COVID-19 symptoms might work.
Commissioner Mary Key said she thinks it’s important that the mask advisory be followed in public, and that a mask mandate continue in county buildings for the next few weeks.
“In the past, we’ve stayed with what the state has set,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to take it out too much further.”
“I had Covid back in July and I’ve had my vaccine,” said Fleetwood. “I’m at the point now where I’m doing that (wearing a mask) to help other people.”
Key said she would encourage people to continue to wear masks anywhere in public. “We still have a lot of our population who have not had the vaccine.”
“Within our county you’re going to have businesses that will require people to wear masks,” Fleetwood said. “I don’t think I’m doing myself any favors (wearing a mask), but I’m doing this to help other people feel comfortable. I do this for other people. I hope that’s something we can all get behind. At the end of the day, we all need to know that given the governor’s advisory, we’re going to have businesses that require people to wear a mask. We want to encourage people to understand it takes a team, to get behind this as long as we can, and look out for people.” Fleetwood said some businesses may not require a mask, which is their right, but if businesses do require patrons to wear a mask, “then I’m asking people to respect it, to observe it and to show some patience...There may be some places that don’t require a mask. People may just need to be understanding of one another,” he said, take precautions and stay vigilant.
Hornby noted that the Gibson County Council on Aging’s senior center in Princeton serves a number of senior citizens who don’t feel comfortable going places where people don’t have masks on. “It’s more of a respect thing for the community, for us to continue to wear our masks,” she said.
Hornby said there are people who can’t take the vaccine due to specific health conditions. “We need to protect them too. It’s something you’re doing for the community. I’m vaccinated. I probably don’t need to wear a mask, but I do think it does help quite a bit... When you’re in larger crowds and in confined areas, that’s when it’s really important to keep your masks on.”
“Loosening up the mask mandate struck me funny,” said Cecil “Bob” Allen of Princeton. “If you look at what happened just this last weekend, there were 40,000 people at the (NCAA) tournament in Texas, Spring Break, over two million people flying for Easter vacation — and you’re going to tell me that we’re not going to have another surge of Covid in this United States? There’s nobody in the world who hates wearing this mask more than I do, but it’s something we’ve got to do. If we’re going to save lives, we’ve got to wear our masks and keep people safe,” he said.
Sheriff Tim Bottoms said a mask will still be required entering the Gibson County Jail, until further notice. “We went a full year fighting that stuff to keep it out and it finally got in,” he said of an outbreak in the jail in early March. “We’re going to do what we can do to keep it out further.”
“I stand behind you on that,” Fleetwood told the sheriff.
Hornby emphasized it’s important to get the vaccine, to help prevent the spread as well.
Fleetwood said he thinks making masks mandatory in county buildings, but an advisory recommendation elsewhere, dovetails with the governor’s actions. “I think if we see a dramatic increase in cases we may have to go to a mandate in the county,” he added.
“I’m not looking forward to wearing this (mask) another summer,” quipped Key. But she said she thinks people should continue to wear masks “to protect your family, yourself and your friends.”