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Bellefonte Community Voices Concern for Masking and Social Distancing Ordinance

by and on September 10, 2020 9:12 AM
Bellefonte, PA

BELLEFONTE — After a long discussion, Bellefonte Borough Council voted 5-4 to table a masking and social-distancing ordinance and then sent the measure to the safety committee for review and a possible public hearing in the future.

Borough Manager Ralph Stewart said the borough received 10 letters of support for the ordinance and 30 against it. It also received an additional 15 letters against the ordinance while asking for a delay on the decision until an in-person meeting takes place.

Stewart also cited a petition online that contained more than 1,000 signatures against a masking ordinance.

He said some of the signatures on the petition, though, came from people who reside outside of the borough.

The controversial ordinance was drafted in response to a request by the county for municipalities to coordinate a response to the coronavirus pandemic, said council member Randall Brachbill. State College Borough, along with College, Patton and Ferguson townships, have all passed similar ordinances recently.

During a meeting on Tuesday night, Bellefonte council members Doug Johnson, Deborah Cleeton, Jon Eaton, Gina Thompson and Brachbill voted “yes” to table the ordinance, while council members R. Michael Prendergast, Melissa Hombosky, Anne Walker and Joanne Tosti-Vasey voted “no” to tabling it, wanting to take an immediate vote.

All council members, except Johnson, then voted for the ordinance to be reviewed by the safety committee. If the safety committee chooses to bring the ordinance back to council with revisions, an in-person public hearing will be held before council would vote on the measure. There is no time frame for when, or if, that might happen.

Thompson asked that a representative from the police department be on the safety committee, per the request of the Police Chief Shawn Weaver.

“My concerns are that it is repetitive of what is already mandated by the governor,” said Thompson. “The additional aspect of this is the enforcement piece. I am concerned that this will create extra burden and extra cost for the police department in addition to just the nuts and bolts and the relationship of trying to enforce this with the public. I think it will put extra strain on our police department and on our local magistrate to decide on fines.”

While in favor of tabling the motion, Eaton said, “I would like us to continue to work on an ordinance or something, because there are some issues that we do need to address. One of the topics that prompted this was the concern over the leakage of student partying out of the Centre Region.”

Eaton praised Penn State’s effort to manage the virus and said that ordinance was partly in support of the school’s efforts.

“I think it behooves us to continue to figure out what we can do to possibly constrain any possible student party leakage, or any behavior that might become an issue latter in the fall,” he said.

Weaver said the police will follow whatever the council decides to do, but “we are not seeing any students come into town in big droves. I am out every day in the daytime. It is a pretty busy in town. I am seeing the vast majority of people wearing masks when it is appropriate to do so.”

In support of the masking ordinance, Walker said, “I do feel a sense of urgency about this ordinance. I do think Bellefonte has been very fortunate that we have not seen the kind of numbers that State College is seeing, but I do think that we need to do this. We need to pass this with all deliberate speed in order to prevent that.”

The proposed ordinance would require people to wear a mask while they are within 6 feet of other people when inside public buildings and spaces, while waiting in lines outside businesses and on public transportation.

The proposed ordinance also limits the size of household gathering to 25 unrelated people.

Following a written warning, the ordinance proposed fines ranging from $50 to $300. Businesses not in compliance could face a fine of $100 to $400.

This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.

Vincent Corso is writer for Town&Gown and the Centre County Gazette.
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