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Barron Backs Borough Ordinance on Gathering Limitations, Masking

by on August 06, 2020 6:47 PM

With thousands of Penn State students set to return in the next two weeks, university President Eric Barron expressed his support for a State College Borough ordinance approved this week that requires mask-wearing in most public places and limits gathering sizes.

“This is a strong ordinance and I’m very pleased that borough council has taken this solid stance in support of the health of the State College and Penn State community,” Barron said in a statement.

Barron and other Penn State officials have said on multiple occasions that while the university has plans to enforce COVID-19 mitigation measures on-campus, it is relying on assistance and cooperation from surrounding communities to help with off-campus measures. Prior to borough council's Tuesday night vote, Barron sent a letter urging council "to pass the strongest ordinance possible."

The temporary ordinance, approved unanimously by borough council, requires face coverings to be worn, with some exceptions, while waiting to enter or inside any building open to the public; on transport and transit vehicles such as CATA bus or Uber and Lyft; and outdoors whenever 6 feet of distancing from non-household or non-family members is not possible. Council also discussed amending the ordinance at a future date to require face coverings at all times outdoors in high-density areas such as downtown.

Exceptions include individuals with a disability, medical or mental health condition that prevents the wearing of masks, if within five days documentation from a medical professional is provided confirming the person has such a diagnosis. The specific diagnosis or medical reason does not have to be provided.

Also exempted are people whose religion prevents them from wearing a face covering; those with a hearing impairment, or who are communicating with a person who is hearing impaired, when seeing the mouth is necessary for communication; individuals who are receiving a service or treatment involving the nose or face or a medical procedure requiring temporary removal of the face-covering; persons for whom wearing a face covering would create a risk to related to their work; and patrons who are seated at a restaurant or other food or beverage service establishment.

Gatherings at residences are limited to 10 people not of the same household, indoors and outdoors combined, and where a household exceeds 10 residents no others are permitted to gather. Gatherings at borough parks or other municipal properties are limited to 25 people. Other private commercial properties are subject to limitations established by the state Department of Health. The ordinance does not apply to private business locations, private offices, events such as weddings, funerals and protest demonstrations, public and private schools and religious functions.

Lines on sidewalks waiting to enter a business are limited to no more than 10 people, who must be 6 feet apart and wearing masks and cannot wait in front of another business or property. Businesses are to monitor lines and notify the State College Police Department if someone refuses to comply.

Police "and other public safety, health officers, ordinance enforcement officers, and emergency management personnel are charged with the enforcement of this ordinance," according to the borough. 

Violations can result in a citation with a fine of $300 for individuals, the homeowner or rental property tenant where a violation occurs, and businesses that don't require employees to comply with the ordinance.

But a fine likely won't be in the cards for first offenses.

"Generally, enforcement will be first attempted using educational tactics or warnings prior to fines," according to a statement on the borough website accompanying the publication of the ordinance.

Reports of non-compliance should be made by calling the State College Police Department's non-emergency number, (814) 234-7150.

The ordinance is in effect until the Pennsylvania Department of Health and Centre Region Council of Governments rescind their emergency declarations or Jan. 31, 2021, whichever is earlier.

“The safety provisions and enforcement in the borough ordinance align with the policies, procedures and enforcement mechanisms we are putting in place at Penn State," Barron said. "We must enforce simple public health measures to help prevent the transmission of coronavirus if we are to be successful in bringing our students, faculty and staff back to our campuses this fall.” 

On campus, Penn State will require face coverings, limit class and gathering sizes, require social distancing and restrict visitors to residence halls, among other measures. Those will be enforced through a combination of informal and formal informal — from reminders, to support for faculty to end a class if a student refuses to comply, to student conduct and human resources processes for violations.

Off campus, the university has little direct reach. However, it has worked with the Interfraternity Council to enact an indefinite moratorium on social functions and has "asked local landlords to be diligent in monitoring activities at their rental properties," according to Barron's letter.

As with other off-campus violations of the student code of conduct, the university will rely on citations and referrals from local authorities.

"We’re going to be much more aggressive than we usually are with our own disciplinary outcomes, probably less patient with very evident violations, because at the core of all this is our concern with public health," Vice President for Student Affairs Damon Sims said during a webinar for local government leaders in July.

Staff from Penn State's Office of Government and Community Relations are talking with other Centre Region municipalities about enacting similar ordinances, according to a university news release. 

It's not clear if they can. State College and Ferguson Township are Centre County's only home-rule municipalities, which means they can do anything that is not specifically denied by state or federal law, or their own charter. Municipalities without home rule are confined to only what is specifically authorized by state law. Though not part of the Centre Region, Bellefonte Borough Council last month cited its lack of home rule as the reason it could not pass an ordinance for local enforcement of masking.

But during Tuesday night's State College Borough Council meeting, solicitor Terry Williams said the ordinance is tied to provisions in the state health code allowing the adoption of regulations related to an emergency declaration.

"There is going to be a debate, hopefully not involving State College, but elsewhere, as to whether a pandemic is an emergency that allows all this to happen at a state level," Williams said. "The point is, you insulate the borough from challenges by saying we are doing this in conjunction with the state’s declared state of emergency. Tying it to that seems to provide a little bit of protection in terms of preserving the validity of what you’re doing."

Zack Moore, Penn State vice president for government and community relations, said the State College ordinance is "a great example of town and gown coming together" for the good of all in the community.

“With this ordinance, safe behavior and preventative measures are now required both on and off the University Park campus," Moore said. "I strongly urge the local municipalities adjacent to all Penn State campuses to adopt similar laws in support of public health during this pandemic.” 

Penn State's fall semester classes begin on Aug. 24. Students will begin moving in to on-campus residences in phases beginning Aug. 17. Off-campus apartments have largely targeted the same timeframe for move-in dates, though some are beginning earlier.

Centre County has had 364 COVID-19 cases since the first was reported on March 20, as well as 10 deaths attributed to the virus, according to the Department of Health. In the past two weeks the county has had 60 new cases and as of Thursday morning DOH data shows no COVID-19 hospitalizations at Mount Nittany Medical Center.

The largest number of COVID-19 cases in the county have occurred in State College and its immediately surrounding area. According to zip code data provided by DOH, State College zip codes of 16801, 16803 and 16804 and University Park's 16802 zip code have had at least 166 total cases. Boalsburg and Lemont, both within the Centre Region, have had at least 16 combined cases.

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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