Stillwater City Council discusses plan to reopen city

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Many city councilors expressed displeasure at the City of Stillwater's plan to reopen the city May 1 saying that it's too early.

During the Monday night city council meeting, councilors discussed plans to reopen Stillwater and expressed disappointment with the timing of the decision.

Mayor William Joyce’s proclamation declaring a state of emergency is set to expire on Thursday at midnight. In a statement released April 24, Joyce said the current emergency declaration would be allowed to expire on May 1. According to the statement, a proclamation detailing requirements for businesses to reopen will be released this week.

During the council meeting, Joyce said cities around the state, including Stillwater, will be reopening in line with the governor’s plan. He said restrictions on economic activities are only worthwhile if they bring a public health benefit. Since residents can travel elsewhere to conduct their business, there is no benefit to prohibiting them from conducting that business in Stillwater, he said.

Under the governor’s reopening plan, a number of businesses which were previously ordered closed will be allowed to reopen. These businesses include personal care businesses, gyms, places of worship, tattoo parlors, dining rooms and various entertainment venues. The plan lays out guidelines for these businesses to follow during reopening but does not establish any specific enforcement mechanism for those guidelines.

The final authority to alter or extend emergency declarations rests with Mayor Joyce, but he asked his fellow councilors for their input during Monday night’s meeting. Vice Mayor Pat Darlington said she was concerned about the speed at which the city is reopening and that she would have liked to wait at least another week.

“I’m still unhappy that we have gone ahead, and that we were put into this position,” Darlington said.

She said Stillwater Medical Center is a medical provider for the region, not just the city, and that it has only seven ICU rooms.

Other councilors agreed the timing of the reopening was not ideal. Councilor John Wedlake, who is also a medical doctor, said reopening now was a bad decision from an infectious disease point of view. However, he said the city had little choice but to go along with the rest of the state.

“I think we need to be extremely diligent and prepared to re-escalate restrictions at a moment’s notice as numbers continue to be made available to us,” Wedlake said.

He said the incubation period of COVID-19 combined with the methodology used by the state to calculate infection totals results in a lag in available data. He said by the time the case numbers start rising again, the city will already be behind.

The councilors gave suggestions for businesses and individuals to consider moving forward, and discussed potential challenges to returning to normalcy.

Councilor Amy Dzialowski said residents need to get comfortable with the idea of wearing masks in public.

“We’re going to have to get over it, it’s going to have to be cool,” Dzialowski said. “Because it’s the kindest thing that you can do for our community and for your neighbors and for your family right now.”

Currently, masks are not required to be worn in public, although they are highly recommended.

“It’s a small restriction to our personal freedom to wear a mask,” Dzialowski said.

In a phone call the day after the meeting, Vice Mayor Darlington said she would like to see masks required in public places as a condition of reopening. She said wearing masks help slow the spread of the virus and sends a signal to other members of the community.

“It gives me a whole lot of confidence when I see someone with a mask, that they are well aware of the virus still present in our community, still present in our world, and are taking precautions,” Darlington said.

She said she would prefer a proclamation that also included a limit on the size of gatherings, enforced social distancing and established clear triggers for re-escalation of restrictions.

While the governor’s plan makes many similar recommendations, establishing enforceable restrictions for reopening businesses is up to local governments.

Mayor Joyce said at the meeting on Monday that business owners permitted to reopen under the governor’s plan should anticipate having to follow all of the state’s recommendations. He said the city moved faster than the state when it came to closing down initially and would likely do so again if the need arose.

When the new proclamation is issued, it should be posted on the city website’s breaking news page. Previous proclamations relating to the COVID-19 emergency are also available there.

The next meeting of the Stillwater City Council will take place via zoom on May 5 at 5:30 p.m. Residents can request to speak during the meeting by filling out an online form by no later than 3 p.m. on the day of the meeting.