Journal and Courier
WEST LAFAYETTE – When the West Lafayette City Council unanimously approved a mask mandate six months ago, Mayor John Dennis thought by the time the mandate expired, life would be back to normal.
That, Dennis said Tuesday, March 2, obviously did not happen.
Thwarting the spread of COVID-19 is still paramount, the mayor said, despite recent drops in positivity rates and the distribution of vaccines. Therefore, during Monday night’s council meeting, leaders decided to allow the mandate to extend another six months.
Wearing masks, he said, has become normal behavior for the vast majority of residents of West Lafayette, the first city in Indiana to issue such a mandate.
Normal doesn’t mean total acceptance, and city leaders still face occasional backlash from their decision. Criticism comes via emails, phone calls, shouts across the street, and in at least one instance, with a black marker across gray cloth.
“I saw a guy when I was running with a handmade mask that said, ‘F-John,’ ” with the notorious curse word actually spelled out, Dennis said. “Now, I’m not the only John around, but I’m pretty sure that was directed at me.”
The reaction to the mask mandate was not widespread but was, the mayor recalled, fierce. In fact, a July 2020 executive order issued by Dennis was challenged in a lawsuit filed by Michael Bryant, a Tippecanoe County resident, and on Sept. 1, a judge ruled against the executive order. The ruling did not prevent the council from issuing its own mandate as a whole.
The judge, according to the Journal & Courier, dismissed Bryant’s claim that the executive order infringed on his constitutional rights, but did decide that the order should have gone before the City Council for a vote.
The council-backed mandate, later that month, was passed unanimously. Full support has continued to be solidly behind Dennis, something the mayor gratefully acknowledges.
After the judge’s ruling in September, Peter Bunder, West Lafayette City Council member, said in a Journal & Courier story at the time that the council would take up the issue “in a heartbeat.”
The mandate states, people must wear masks:
- When in businesses or public facilities
- On public transportation
- In “high-density occupational settings where social distancing is not practicable”
- Any outdoor space where social distancing of six feet can’t be maintained.
Exceptions include anyone under age 6, those seated at restaurants, people in a personal vehicle, those actively exercising in a gym or other indoor facility; those outdoors where six feet of separation is possible, and “in settings where it is not practicable to wear a face mask, such as when receiving dental services, medical treatments, while swimming …”
Dennis said council members have taken criticism for their actions but have held steadfast in their decision.
“I’ve been at this 13 years,” Dennis said, “and I’ve never had this reaction before to anything. People who were opposed were so passionate. There was a lot of pressure not just on me, but the council as a whole. I presented (the mandate), but they were the ones who approved it.”
For the most part, though, residents have not only complied but embraced the new normal, seeing the act of wearing a mask as a personal contribution to opening up the economy.
“The mood has changed,” Dennis told the Journal & Courier. “At first, when we issued the mandate, people were upset. Some thought this was government stomping on the Constitution; people have come to realize it’s not only the right thing to do, it’s the only thing to do.”
The mayor recognizes the eagerness to see masks behind us. It’s been nearly a year since the first case was reported in Tippecanoe County, a year filled with sickness, death, dread, economic and personal hardships and dramatic adjustments to everyday life.
“People are tired, they want this to be over,” he said. “We do have vaccines, but now is not the time to stop doing what we can. We need to be vigilant, to maintain protocols.
“COVID-19 is sneaky, it’s sticky,” he added. “If we don’t continue to do what we know works, what we know we should do, we could have a surge. We are trying to keep the economy strong.
“Small businesses suffer first and the hardest, so please, wear a mask.”
This article was made available through the Hoosier State Press Association.