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story.lead_photo.caption File photo/NWA Democrat-Gazette/DAVID GOTTSCHALK The city of Fayetteville logo is seen at City Hall on Feb. 14, 2017.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Residents will be required to wear a face mask in most indoor public places.

The City Council voted 8-0 to require wearing a mask with certain exceptions and to allocate $100,000 for a public safety campaign. An emergency clause, also unanimously approved, makes the rule effective today.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson in past news briefings has encouraged residents to wear a face mask, but so far hasn't mandated it for the general public.

Council Member Matthew Petty sponsored the measure, saying masks have proven to be an effective means of preventing the spread of covid-19, and Washington County in particular has become a hot spot.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » nwaonline.com/coronavirus]

"If the state disagrees with this program, with our notion that mask-wearing should be done at a high rate for the public's safety, they should have to argue why our program should stop," he said. "They should have to justify that."

The ordinance requires anyone in the public portion of a business to wear a face covering. Exceptions are made for when people are eating, drinking or exercising, or in small group settings in which a distance of 6 feet can be achieved. It does not apply to outdoor settings unless social distancing is not possible. People with a relevant disabling condition also are exempted.

Businesses also must post signs on their doors instructing customers to wear masks. The city on its website Monday provided a printable sign in English and Spanish that businesses can use.

The ordinance allocates $100,000 from the city's emergency fund for a public safety campaign. The council in March dedicated $3 million to put toward coronavirus-related efforts.

The money will buy masks to give to businesses or public safety employees to provide to customers and residents without a mask. It also would set up a non-emergency hotline for businesses to call with any pandemic-related concerns or questions. Customers would not be allowed to enter a business without a mask.

Residents would not be subject to penalties for not wearing a mask, other being denied entry to a business. But businesses who "willfully neglect" the ordinance could be subject to the city's standard penalty, which is a citation and up to a $500 fine.

Petty said the standard for willful neglect is high. Merely making an effort in good faith clears a business owner from being subject to penalty, he said.

Two members of the public spoke, both in support.

City Attorney Kit Williams advised the council the measure likely exceeds the city's authority. Directives from the state give the governor and secretary of health sole authority over all restrictions on commerce, he said.

"The state board of health and the governor have made it clear on numerous occasions that not only do they believe they have the sole authority for these sorts of regulations, but they will not attempt to regulate face mask wearing by the general public in many situations," Williams said.

Williams said he believed in face masks as an effective way to prevent the spread of covid-19, but that he was speaking to the council as city attorney.

Council members acknowledged the limitation of authority, but said it was the right action to take given surging cases of covid-19 in Northwest Arkansas.

Kyle Smith encouraged other Northwest Arkansas cities to adopt similar measures regarding face masks. He bemoaned what he described as a lack of action on the state's part.

"Sometimes this is just about doing the right thing," Smith said.

Washington County has reported 1,925 cases with 806 recovered, according to the state Health Department. Washington County has had a total of 18 deaths, including 15 county residents and three Oklahoma residents, according to County Coroner Roger Morris.

Mayor Lioneld Jordan said it's the city's top priority to keep its residents safe. He told the council his administration will procure masks to distribute as quickly as possible.

Chief Financial Officer Paul Becker said the city can buy up to $20,000 worth of masks without having to put the purchase to a vote of the council.

In other business, six residents spoke to the council against a rezoning request on Arkansas Avenue. The lot is owned by the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity of the University of Arkansas. Its previous building was demolished, and the organization was seeking a rezoning to allow construction of a new fraternity building.

Residents voiced opposition to the request, citing concerns with the larger size of the new proposed building, its closer proximity to the sidewalk and compatibility issues. The Planning Commission rejected the proposal last month.

Blake Jorgensen with Jorgensen and Associates presented the request to the council and said he had a bill of assurance with new details and architectural renderings the Planning Commission had not seen. The new information also was not included in the council's packets.

The council left the item on its first reading and will take it up again July 7.

Additionally, the council voted 6-2 to make certain changes to its meeting procedure. Council members Mark Kinion and Teresa Turk voted against.

The measure adopts a sign-up procedure for residents to make public comment. Such a function has been in place on Zoom, the application the city has been using to hold public meetings online because of the pandemic. Public comment on amendments to agenda items will be granted with unanimous consent or a majority vote from the council, and limited to 3 minutes.

Public comment time for regular agenda items will stay at 5 minutes.

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Council action

Fayetteville’s City Council met Tuesday and approved:

A rezoning request for the Hughmount subdivision, which the council agreed to annex, will be up for discussion July 7.

A ban on single-use expanded polystyrene foam will go into effect July 1, as Mayor Lioneld Jordan announced in March. The council approved the ban in November.

Source: NWA Democrat-Gazette

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