DOVER — Following an hourlong debate on the ethics of requiring face masks Tuesday, Kent County Levy Court commissioners approved requiring them again in county buildings, effective immediately.
Prior to the lengthy discussion, Allan Kujala, personnel director for Levy Court, proposed a four-phase process for implementing COVID-19 mitigation requirements, such as employees wearing face masks.
Progression through the phases, as they were originally outlined by Mr. Kujala, would be dependent on COVID-19 conditions in the state and determined by the commissioners.
After much debate, however, the commissioners approved moving the proposed phases two and three into phase one — leaving only two phases and meaning that, effective immediately, all visitors and county employees are required to wear masks at all times in county buildings.
Face masks, Mr. Kujala said, do not include neck gaiters and plastic face shields.
Also, effective immediately, employees are to notify their supervisors if they have been exposed to COVID-19, test positive or feel symptomatic.
Furthermore, Levy Court staff will see an immediate return to daily screenings, temperature checks and questions to determine if employees had been exposed to or are symptomatic of COVID-19.
The proposed phase four — which now becomes phase two — will be implemented depending on worsening pandemic conditions and would require employees to submit proof of vaccination and provide weekly negative COVID-19 tests.
If the county reaches this phase, employees could be furloughed if they choose not to comply with vaccination requirements. Mr. Kujala specified the word “furlough” over “laid off,” saying the latter implies a permanent break.
“We would wait (for those employees to return) until they either got vaccinated, got the verification (of vaccination) or the pandemic went away. That would probably be the best outcome,” he said of the last option.
Additionally, until COVID-19 rates drop, Levy Court members approved allowing County Administrator Michael Petit de Mange to determine when to implement phase two. It was a 5-2 vote, with Commissioners Glen Howell and Eric Buckson voting against.
Commissioner Howell was the first to voice opposition to the phased approach, likening “compelling” staff to say whether they have received a vaccine to asking a person if they had had an abortion.
Commissioner George “Jody” Sweeney leaned toward the city of Dover’s handling of the mask question. There, the decision to re-mask was determined by a COVID-19 workgroup, consisting of interim City Manager Matt Harline and other Dover leaders.
Commissioner Sweeney said county administration should be making the decision to require masks for employees, not the commissioners.
Mr. Petit de Mange said the county does have a contagious-disease response policy, adopted in 2009, in wake of the swine flu.
The policy, which he said was approved unanimously, sees the county administrator, in consultation with the president of Levy Court and department heads, able to mandate the use of protective devices (like face masks).
Commissioner Joanne Masten agreed with Commissioner Sweeney, saying she does not think the commissioners should be telling Levy Court’s leadership “how to run this office.”
“While I appreciate the fact that the employees want to have a say, the bottom line is … it’s Mr. Petit de Mange’s and Mr. Kujala’s responsibility to make sure these employees here are safe, as well as the people that come in here,” she said. “I don’t want to make the decision for people we’ve already paid to make the decisions. I don’t think that’s right.”
She noted that she doesn’t support people being forced to wear masks or be vaccinated, but she doesn’t want to spread COVID-19 either.
Commissioner Buckson, who said he has received a COVID-19 vaccination, said personal freedom is paramount.
“To say that you have a choice,” he said. “There is no evidence to show that we’re ever going to prevent this in its entirety, so we live with an element of risk if we’re going to live free.”
Commissioner Sweeney pushed against the notion of personal freedom above all else during a deadly pandemic.
“I also believe in personal freedoms; however, me going home and swimming in my pool tonight and dying from drowning is not going to spread to anyone at this desk,” he said. “I’m not only taking care of my personal rights by wearing the mask or getting vaccinated, I’m protecting you guys from me giving it to you.”
The reinstatement of mask requirements comes after a brief mask-free summer and about three months after the state’s face covering mandate was lifted in late May.
At the start of summer, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance stated that fully vaccinated individuals did not need face masks outdoors and in most indoor settings.
However, in Delaware, effective Sept. 30, staff in long-term care and other health care facilities will be required to provide proof of vaccination or to undergo regular COVID-19 testing.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan also announced Wednesday that nursing home and hospital employees in that state will be required to receive the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by Sept. 1 or undergo regular screening for the virus.
Furthermore, the city of Dover announced Tuesday that visitors and employees will be required to wear masks following the decision by the city’s COVID-19 workgroup.
Dover City Council resumed in-person meetings, without masks, July 13 after more than a year of conducting them remotely.
In Delaware public and private schools, as of Monday, masks are required for kindergarten through 12th grade students, regardless of vaccination status. Child care centers and homes are strongly encouraged to require masks for children ages 2 to kindergarten.
In addition, all personnel at Dover Air Force Base are required to wear face coverings, regardless of vaccination status, as of Aug. 11.