Commissioners hear local opposition to face mask mandate

Nancy Hannah, a biology teacher at Northridge High School, speaks to the Elkhart County commissioners Monday, voicing opposition to the county’s face mask order. Hannah and several others spoke out against the mandate during the commissioners’ meeting.

GOSHEN — Several people spoke out against Elkhart County’s face mask mandate amid the COVID-19 pandemic during the county commissioners’ meeting Monday.

After the commissioners concluded business on their agenda, six people from a large audience addressed them.

Nancy Hannah, of Elkhart, a biology teacher at Northridge High School in Middlebury, argued face mask requirements are interfering with the ability for the population to develop an immune response against the coronavirus, and that there’s little scientific evidence showing most face masks, outside of N95-classified masks, prevent transmission of the virus.

Hannah expressed concerns social pressures and mandates on the local and state levels to wear masks are eroding American freedoms.

“We are continually propagandized with the mantra, ‘Just wear a mask.’ And unfortunately, in our county, as we continue to hear that mantra, I feel more and more like I’m living in a country that is unknown to me,” Hannah told the commissioners.

She said some epidemiological studies have suggested masks might be effective in reducing exposure to COVID-19, but so far, no study has proved masks reduce the spread of the virus or protect wearers from infection. She also pointed to an infectious diseases journal report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that was published in May, saying researchers found face masks had no significant effect on reducing transmission of influenza during such pandemics. Hannah noted the COVID-19 virus has a similar structure to the flu virus.

A May 2020 journal article on the CDC’s site titled, “Nonpharmaceutical measures for pandemic influence in nonhealthcare settings,” shows researchers did not find evidence “surgical-type face masks” are effective in halting the flu. But the report noted masks, like hand hygiene, could reduce transmission of other infections and have value during a pandemic when resources are stretched. The report also found education on proper mask use is needed as well.

Hannah told the commissioners masks motivate people to touch their faces to adjust masks for breathing, speaking clearly or de-fogging glasses. Hygiene recommendations since the start of the pandemic have included calls for people to avoid touching their faces.

Hannah fears mask mandates, and the lack of public conversation about them, will do more harm than good, including keeping children out of school for weeks.

“The current state of COVID-19 has not matched the dire predictions propagated by the media and public health officials. Thankfully, the disease did not match predictions. However, the price we have paid as a country in terms of loss of educational opportunities, economic productivity and freedom to assemble far exceeded the purported risks,” Hannah said.

READ THE BOOK

Susie Chilberg, of Elkhart, spoke next, encouraging the commissioners to read a new book title “The Case Against Masks.”

Chilberg argued extensive wearing of masks is unhealthy by interfering with the breathing cycle of inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide. She also argued pressure to wear masks is causing increased fear and anxiety.

“The masking is not good. It is increasing fear in people. I see older people going into grocery stores scared half out of their minds that somebody is going to breathe on them. Stupid. It’s how you divide a nation against itself,” Chilberg said.

Jim Montgomery said he’s a Vietnam War veteran who’s used to taking orders from the military for the purpose of defending freedom and liberty.

“The orders that we’re receiving today from county-level government, state government, and even federal government, don’t support either one of those tenants,” Montgomery said.

He also said his opinion is the face mask mandate should be rescinded, and people should be allowed to decide what’s best for them.

“I look at this as political terrorism and weasel-speak,” Montgomery said.

Another argument came from Julian Bontrager, of Goshen, who identified as a church pastor and also runs local businesses. Like the others, he expressed concerns that face mask requirements are eroding social bonds, and that people are being pushed to breaking points.

“What I’m seeing is a growing animosity, a growing hatred, where people are actually afraid to reach out and help the guy next to them because you don’t know what kind of response you’re going to get. There is this fear and this anxious thing brought on by these foolish masks,” Bontrager said.

He also questioned the legality of such mandates from Gov. Eric Holcomb’s office.

“This is not a law. This is not something enforceable by him until there is proper procedure. And not one meeting has been called with our representatives and senators with the governor to establish something as law,” Bontrager said.

COMMISSIONERS RESPOND

Commissioner president Mike Yoder, addressing the speakers and the audience, pointed out the governor’s mandates were issued through emergency declaration orders under certain authority he wields. He also pointed out the local order, issued June 29 and mandating the use of face masks in indoor areas accessible to the public, was made through the county health department’s authority under Dr. Lydia Mertz, the county health officer.

Yoder said the county health officer’s authority and autonomy, under state statute, is buffered away from political entities for the sake of making professional decisions based on facts and data, and not politics. The commissioners are limited in their authority on affecting the health department’s mandate.

“As much as you would like us to reach out and override or whatever, that’s not legal for us to do,” Yoder said.

He also said he shares points of view against ordering mask usage, and assured opponents their beliefs have been taken into account when decisions have been made.

“It’s not that your perspective has not been heard. It’s not that your perspective has not been shared. It has. It’s just it has not prevailed … at this point,” Yoder said.

Commissioner Suzanne Weirick said the commissioners have not mandated masks, but have recommended them for the past several months.

“The commissioners recommended mask wearing and social distancing early on. We didn’t mandate it. We recommended it, based on data we saw,” Weirick said.

The health department progressed to its order based on multiple issues, including easing hospital occupancy and keeping businesses open, she indicated.

Weirick said she believes, as she remembers it, the decision to order face mask use started with the pressure on hospitals to ensure they had enough beds and services available to treat patients infected with COVID-19 and patients experiencing other health emergencies and conditions.

Commissioner Frank Lucchese also added local business owners were among those pushing for a mask mandate during a meeting with county leaders, local leaders and Mertz.

“They came to us wanting us to mandate masks because they did not want to close again,” Lucchese said.

He said company owners feared the state would order businesses closed again if the mask mandate wasn’t issued. He believed that concern was the final push for the health department to order face mask usage.

Lucchese and Yoder both said they agree with several points speakers made Monday; with Lucchese saying he would prefer the county to stay with a recommendation rather than an order.

Yoder said all sides of the mask issue have been discussed since March, including points of view opposing a face mask mandate. He said he had to concede his points as they were outweighed by others in local government.

“There have been many long discussions on these policies before they were put in place. And I personally made some of these arguments to mayors, and health officers, and others. But at some point, my personal preference is set aside to what the group decides,” Yoder said.

Yoder also described the processes involved in such decisions as frustrating as the county and the health department have tried to make the best decisions for the community.

Aimee Ambrose can be reached at aimee.ambrose@goshennews.com or 574-533-2151, ext. 240316. Follow her on Twitter at @aambrose_TGN.

Aimee Ambrose can be reached at aimee.ambrose@goshennews.com or 574-533-2151, ext. 240316. Follow her on Twitter at @aambrose_TGN.

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