But he voted against it.
“I believe the small uptick we’ll see in compliance is not worth the community division that this will create,” Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken told the audience.
The mask mandate’s failure comes as the state sees a steep rise in virus-related hospitalizations, new reported cases and deaths. Last week, South Dakota’s new daily reported cases rose by roughly 9 percent; the state also saw an 18.2 percent increase in daily reported deaths and a 26.5 percent uptick in hospitalizations, according to The Washington Post’s coronavirus tracker.
But state leaders, including Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R) — who has tried to downplay the seriousness of the pandemic — have refused to issue mask mandates even as doctors have urged the public to cover their faces and avoid large gatherings.
“It pains me that we’re becoming famous now for our statistics,” Tom Dean, a South Dakotan doctor, told The Washington Post on Monday. “One in every 20 people has gotten sick in about the last month. Our death rate is the highest in the country, but it’s more than that. These aren’t anonymous cases. These are my patients, my friends, my family.”
In late October, when hospitals continued receiving a surge of new covid-19 patients, TenHaken implored Sioux Falls residents — and the region — to wear a mask. Schools, hospitals and vulnerable populations, “they need you to do more,” he said in a news conference, according to the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.
“If you wanna live in a state that gives you freedoms,” TenHaken said, “that comes with an expectation of responsibility, and I need this region to do more.”
Just days before that emotional plea, TenHaken had co-signed a letter with 15 other mayors of South Dakota cities where they asked state residents to wear a mask when social distancing is not possible, among other standard covid-19 mitigation recommendations, the local paper reported.
Despite his pleas that city residents wear a mask, TenHaken has maintained that he remains skeptical of mask ordinances. He has previously said a mask mandate would have a limited effective on hospitalizations. He has also said enforcing such a mandate would be difficult for the police, noting he would not ask police officers to enforce it.
Because of this, his decision to vote down a mask mandate on Tuesday evening was not a surprise. TenHaken was aware he could be put “in the hot seat” on Tuesday, adding if the decision end up coming down to him, he would vote against it, the Argus Leader reported.
On Tuesday, the Sioux Falls City Council considered an emergency ordinance proposed by councilman Curt Soehl, which would have required residents to wear a mask in “indoor public places where 6-foot social distancing cannot be achieved or maintained.” The rule would have included bars, restaurants and gyms, among others.
The ordinance had been at the center of a contentious debate since Soehl first proposed it in late October, as reported by the Argus Leader. Although city council members had agreed to let the proposal reach the second stage of the debate on Tuesday, many of its members had already said they would oppose it.
It was not too difficult to predict whether a resident supported or opposed the mask mandate before they addressed the council on Tuesday evening. Those who generally spoke in favor of the ordinance wore them, but others approached the lectern with uncovered faces.
One man who identified himself as an infectious-disease expert said he does not take his 3-month-old anywhere, because he does not feel safe in a city that does not require its residents to wear masks when in public. In the “name of science and evidence,” he begged the council members to approve the ordinance.
“We need to act, we need to act now. Every day, allowing the status quo will continue to deliver more and more people infected and affected,” he told the local leaders.
Those council members who opposed the ordinance on Tuesday evening argued a mask mandate would turn Sioux Falls residents against one another.
“It’s not just about health,” Councilor Greg Neitzert said. “We also have to look at principles.” Neitzert argued he would not want to live in a city were people call the police to report those who are not wearing masks.