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In Fairfield County, Face Mask Mandate Seen As 'Virtually Unenforceable'

Sydney Chenetski holding her child, Finn, while having lunch with friend Ashley Boyer in downtown Lancaster.
Nick Evans
Sydney Chenetski holding her child, Finn, while having lunch with friend Ashley Boyer in downtown Lancaster.

As big trucks rumble down Main Street in downtown Lancaster, Sydney Chenetski and her friend Ashley Boyer are having lunch in a park next to a large fountain. They’re both nurses, and weren’t surprised when state officials ordered face masks to be worn in Fairfield County.

“I think it’s scary for kids,” Chenetski says. “I know my two-and-a half year old tells me I look like a ghost every time I put it on.”

Chenetski says the only way to get him to wear a mask is if it’s super-hero themed, and even then it won’t last long. Her youngest son won’t wear a mask at all.

So far, Chenetski says public masking has been a mixed bag.

“I feel a lot of it’s age-based,” she explains. “The younger population just thinks [they’re] more invincible maybe, I don’t know, or just if they get it they’ll recover. But 40 and older and they do a pretty good job of wearing them.”

The county-by-county mask mandate began last week in Fairfield County, relying on a new color-coded risk level map published by the Ohio Department of Health. Under the order, people in high-risk counties have to wear masks in indoor public spaces, and outdoors when they can’t maintain a safe distance.

Face mask mandates will expand to Delaware, Licking, Richland and Union counties on Friday night, to go along with Franklin and Pickaway counties, which already have the order in place. Overall, 19 counties representing 60% of the state's population will be required to wear a masks.

Wednesday evening, Gov. Mike DeWine held a television address to discuss Ohio’s surging COVID-19 cases. Ahead of the event, some wondered if DeWine would issue a new stay-at-home order or maybe a statewide mask requirement.

He did neither, instead using the speech to implore Ohioans to voluntarily wear masks in public. The mood in Fairfield County might offer a glimpse at why DeWine is proceeding so cautiously.

“It’s virtually unenforceable,” Lancaster Mayor David Scheffler says bluntly.

Lancaster Mayor David Scheffler.
Credit Nick Evans / WOSU
Lancaster Mayor David Scheffler.

The police and county health departments say they are stretched too thin to respond to mask complaints. Enforcement is complicated further because there are legitimate medical reasons not to wear one, and those conditions are covered by health privacy laws.

Scheffler has no problem putting on a mask himself, but when it comes to convincing others, he doesn’t have a carrot or a stick. And his constituents are reaching out.

“The communications I’m getting that oppose masks are outrunning those who favor masks, probably four or five to one,” he says.

Because of that, Scheffler argues a statewide mask order would likely be counterproductive. He compares it to the state stay at home order, which Scheffler says “went over like a lead balloon.”

“I think there’s going to be a huge pushback on it, and still it doesn’t make it any more easily enforceable” Scheffler says.

Back outside, Aundrea Cordle is wearing a bright blue and green patterned mask, which she says a friend made for her. Cordle recognizes some people are chafing at the requirements, but for her the math is pretty simple.

Aundrea Cordle
Credit Nick Evans / WOSU
Aundrea Cordle

“The more that wear them, the better,” she says. “And sometimes it does take somebody telling you that that’s the precautions you need to take. Again, there will still be people who are going to be angered, upset by that and don’t want to comply.

“I just came from North Carolina,” she goes on, “and they’re a mask-required state. I didn’t have any problems complying with that.”

In downtown Lancaster around lunchtime, compliance seems pretty good. More than half of people around are wearing masks, and most of those who aren’t are eating and maintaining distance.

Phillip Manning says that sounds about right, with a big caveat.

“If you are in downtown Lancaster, then your impression is correct, just downtown Lancaster,” he says. “The further you move out from that, that ratio changes completely.”

Phillip Manning at the door of his church.
Credit Nick Evans / WOSU
Phillip Manning at the door of his church.

Manning is the pastor at Lighthouse Baptist Church near the edge of town. The sign out front the church urges passing drivers not to trade freedom for safety.

Manning notes the message went up for July 4, not in response to state health mandates. Still, it’s a good illustration of how he sees things.

Despite CDC guidance, Manning rejects masks as a safety measure. He argues that, with fewer than 800 cases in Fairfield County and only 17 deaths, a county-wide order is too aggressive. But more than anything, Manning says he and others bristle at how the mask requirements have been imposed.

“Excuse me, you’re threatening to fine me for what?” he asks rhetorically. “For breaking of an ordinance that is passed through [the] Legislature, or because someone in the authority structure said I’m mandating this? Setting the precedent for ruling by mandate fundamentally changes what our nation is.”

Although he disagrees with the local mask mandate, Manning insists he isn’t dismissing the virus out of hand. They’ve stepped up cleaning at the church, wiping down chairs and other surfaces after every service. But he admits they can’t do much about it spreading in the air.

As for state and local leaders, Manning says he’s praying for them.