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Fayetteville Board of Health considers metrics for lifting city's mask mandate

by Stacy Ryburn | October 14, 2021 at 7:31 a.m.
Patrons walk April 3, 2021, while visiting the Fayetteville Farmers Market at the downtown square. The city's Board of Health on Wednesday considered conditions to recommend lifting the city's mask mandate for all public spaces. (File photo/NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)

FAYETTEVILLE -- The city's Board of Health on Wednesday discussed a few ways it could recommend the city lift its mask mandate, but conditions aren't there yet.

Unless something unexpected happens, the board may recommend lifting the mandate within six weeks.

Granted, the pandemic has proved unpredictable, said Marti Sharkey, the city's public health officer.

"We seem to be coming down a little bit slower in the last few weeks, so we'll just have to see how that progresses as people go indoors more and the weather changes," she said.

Covid-19 cases in the city are below 30 per 10,000 residents over a 14-day period, which is a benchmark Sharkey has spoken of in the past to possibly recommend lifting the mask mandate. However, hospitalizations in the region are still high.

There were 77 patients with covid-19 admitted to hospitals in Benton and Washington counties on Tuesday, according to information presented by Board Member Lenny Whiteman, vice president of managed care at Washington Regional Medical Center. The all-time high was 173 on Aug. 11.

Intensive Care Unit admissions for covid and non-covid patients was 113 -- a high number, Whiteman said -- although lower than the all-time high of 140 on Sept. 8. There also were 52 covid and non-covid patients on ventilators Tuesday.

When the city was considering loosening its mask mandate in May, covid-19 hospitalizations hovered around 25 to 30, and Intensive Care Unit admissions were far lower, Sharkey said. She recommended the City Council lift the mask mandate once covid hospitalizations stay below 30 admissions.

Washington County is still considered a high transmission area for covid-19 per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention standard, Sharkey said. To be considered a moderate transmission area, the county would need to hit below 115 new cases over a seven-day period, she said.

There were 371 new covid-19 cases reported in Washington County over last week, Sharkey said.

The board agreed the city should use hospital data as the deciding factor on whether to lift the mask mandate.

"The bottom line with this pandemic is to protect our hospitals and have access to care. That's the bottom line," said Board Member Huda Sharaf, director of the Pat Walker Health Center at the University of Arkansas. "So when the hospitals are full, that's the most severe metric."

The city had a mask mandate for all people in indoor public places and city buildings for a yearlong period from June 2020 to this past June. It loosened the mandate to apply only to unvaccinated people in public places before reinstating the citywide mandate on Aug. 6. A Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge had placed an injunction on a state law barring cities and other public entities from enacting mask mandates.

The City Council extended the mandate on Oct. 5 after Gov. Asa Hutchinson allowed his emergency declaration to expire. The council will consider lifting the mandate upon a recommendation from the Board of Health or a court decision renders it unenforceable.

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Fayetteville mask mandate

The city’s mask mandate applies to all indoor public places and city-owned buildings. The responsibility of wearing a mask is on individuals. Businesses are not required to enforce the mandate.

Anyone found in violation of the ordinance could potentially be subject to a fine of up to $500 or up to 30 days in jail.

Source: Fayetteville

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