Waynesville leaders backed down from a proposed local mask mandate Tuesday night after nearly 100 people packed town hall to voice their opposition.
Tensions rose before the meeting ever began when the assembled crowd — who were being held in the lobby until the doors opened — learned there wasn’t going to be enough room for them all in the town board room.
Those wishing to speak were told to fill out forms and wait until their name was called. This didn’t sit well with many in the crowd, who demanded the meeting be moved to the sidewalk outside so that everyone could see and hear it — touching off a loud chant of “Take it outside.”
Town staff and police officers eventually quelled the crowd and convinced them that waiting for their turn to speak was the only option. Another uprising ensued after the waiting crowd was told they couldn’t come in without a mask when their turn rolled around.
The vast majority weren’t wearing a mask, given the whole reason they were there in the first place was to speak against the proposed mask mandate.
Some claimed exemptions for religious and health reasons, but others simply said they weren’t going to wear one and it would violate their rights to be denied entry to a public hearing on that grounds.
In the end, masks were offered but not compulsory.
The mezzanine outside the town board room, which was packed shoulder to shoulder, well exceeded the fire code capacity. But attempts to disperse some of the waiting crowd to the main lobby downstairs was likewise abandoned as fruitless.
By now, more police officers had been called in to help manage crowd control. The five town board members had arrived through a back door of town hall and were being held in a private room until the meeting began.
Once the doors opened, the first 20 people in line got inside and claimed the limited seats. The rest could listen to audio from the meeting streamed over a speaker, but given the large crowd, only those in close proximity could hear what was transpiring.
Several in attendance left after seeing they wouldn’t be admitted. Others continued to try to gain entry past police officers guarding the doorway. Staff meanwhile attempted to assure everyone they would eventually get a chance to speak — something that ultimately didn’t happen, however.
One by one, those who had filled out a slip of paper to speak came in to take their turn at the mic. Town Attorney Bill Cannon tried to ban the audience outside the doors from clapping and cheering for speakers, threatening on several occasions to cut off the public hearing if it continued. Eventually, the door to the meeting room was simply closed to keep the sounds of clapping out.
To the chagrin of the waiting masses, Cannon cut off the hearing after 32 minutes, saying the allotted time for the hearing was up. Many still waiting outside to speak, who were previously told by town staff they would get their turn, were upset that the town cut off the public hearing.
Although the public hearing was officially closed, every town board meeting has a designated period of general public comment mandated by law to give constituents the chance to address their local elected officials.
So, some who didn’t get their turn during the official public hearing instead decided to speak during the generic public comment session. However, they were cut off if they mentioned the word “mask.”
They were told they weren’t allowed to talk about masks during the public comment period because it had already been covered in the public hearing — despite most not actually getting to speak during the 32-minute hearing.
When a 16-year-old took the podium, as soon as she mentioned the word “mask,” Cannon interjected.
“Ma’am, this is not the public time period for talking about the ordinance and the masks,” Cannon said.
Several in the audience chimed in calling for the young speaker to be given a break.
Janet Presson was among those who didn’t get to speak in the public hearing and was barred from talking about masks during the public comment period, as well.
“We were told they were done with the mask issue and you couldn’t say the ‘m’ word,” Presson said. “They did everything they could to silence our voices.”
She said the town was clearly unprepared to handle the turnout.
“I think they were dumbfounded and horrified,” Presson said. “Mask mandates are a major issue that affect every single person. It is a hot-button issue. They should have done some better planning.”
Diving into the mask views
This synopsis posted after the meeting late Tuesday night is only a snapshot of the heated discourse that transpired. Complete coverage of the meeting will appear on themountaineer.com Thursday morning and in the weekend print edition.
Meanwhile, the following article appeared in The Mountaineer’s print edition Wednesday to explore views on both sides of the mask issue:
Waynesville leaders are considering a local mask mandate in hopes of moving the needle on mask compliance, but only time will tell whether it will indeed persuade anti-maskers.
“I don’t know that it will,” Alderman Jon Feichter said. “Maybe the symbolic nature of Waynesville taking a stand and saying ‘We require masks’ will inspire some people.”
It certainly isn’t going to sway Todd Bradley, however, who says he won’t kowtow to government control.
“They’re going to be fining me every day because I’m not going to wear one,” said Bradley, a Waynesville resident. “It should be up to the individual. I’m not going to put one on.”
Bradley fears mask mandates are conditioning people to accept more and more government control over their lives.
“First it’s the mask, then they’ll say you have to get the vaccine, then they’ll say you have to get a chip. So when’s it going to quit?” he asked. “When are we going to wake up and see what they are actually trying to do? Everybody just conforms right to it. We need to start pushing back.”
But Jan Jacobson, a former nurse, said wearing a mask is simply the considerate thing to do.
“I am confounded by people who don’t want to wear a mask. It is so incredibly selfish,” Jacobson said. “Maybe you’re healthy, but is your grandmother healthy? Would you want to knowingly be that transmitter? Do you want to be the Typhoid Mary?”
Jacobson supports the idea of the local Waynesville mask mandate, but called it “absurd we have to go to this point.”
Bradley said people shouldn’t judge and criticize others who aren’t wearing a mask. One of Bradley’s family members can’t wear one due to past trauma or abuse, but they’ve been harassed for it.
To Gary Scott, wearing a mask should be a personal decision.
“If you think you are at risk, stay home and do what you need to do to protect yourself. Don’t make someone else change their lifestyle to accommodate yours,” Scott said. “If you think you might drown if you get in the water, you put on a life jacket. That’s your choice.”
Alderman Chuck Dickson said freedom cuts both ways though.
“I have the freedom to live and the freedom not to be infected,” Dickson said. “In the pandemic, people are trying to find a way to be in control of their lives and one way to be in control is to say ‘I’m not going to let anyone tell me what to do. But we need to be a community that takes care of each other.”
Scott conceded that he does own a mask.
“If I am with my wife, she will make me put it on until I get in the store and then when I get in, I take it off,” said Scott, who lives in Canton.
Scott said some mask rules are just downright silly. When going out to eat at Sagebrush recently, he was told he had to wear one while waiting for a table. But after being seated at a booth not far from where he was waiting, he could take it off.
“I could have spit as far as we had to walk. I think people are going overboard,” he said.
Besides, he’s just not that worried about getting COVID.
“If I get it, I get it. We’ll fight it then,” said Scott, who’s 50.
Jacobson, who was a nurse for four decades, said that attitude is a slap in the face to health care workers who have to take care of those who get sick.
“It really, really pisses me off that people are discounting and actually abusing medical staff when they refuse to wear a mask,” Jacobson said. “To take care of someone on a vent, it takes a whole crew of people.”
A patient on a ventilator has to be turned every two hours to prevent bedsores, something that takes three nurses minimum — two to turn and reposition pillows around pressure points and one to guard the mouth to make sure the vent doesn’t come out.
“Not to mention the bladder and bowels,” Jacobson said. “It takes multiple people to clean that person up, to get their diaper off, to clean the feces off. The nurses ought to just go on strike. It is exhausting.”
Masks have been a hot-button issue since the state issued a mask mandate in June. Any story mentioning the word “mask” on The Mountaineer’s Facebook page sparks a rousing debate, one that often devolves into vehement attacks against those with opposing views.
Even when the story has nothing to do with masks, but merely has a picture of someone wearing or not wearing one, it doesn’t take long for the comment section to spiral down the mask rabbit hole.
Jonathan Wood, a pro-mask 35-year-old who lives in Cruso, regularly wades into the debates, citing scientific studies and articles in an attempt to set the record straight on mask efficacy.
“There is no one representing facts,” Wood said. “It seems to be one of the needless number of things folks have capitalized on to divide us and get people riled up.”
That’s one thing both sides seem to agree on. Bradley said masks tearing apart the community fabric. He held the door for a woman the other day, and she refused to walk through it.
“Everyone is hunkering down in fear. God says we shouldn’t live in fear,” Bradley said, who also cites his deep Christian faith as another reason for not needing a mask.
Given the politics over mask wearing, those on both sides have questioned why Waynesville leaders put the issue on their agenda a week out from the election.
But the timing didn’t appear to cross the aldermen’s minds.
“I don’t see this as a political thing at all,” Dickson said.