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State College Considering Ordinance to Enforce COVID-19 Mitigation Efforts

by on July 14, 2020 12:25 AM

State College Borough Council on Monday approved a resolution urging residents and visitors to wear masks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, but much of the discussion centered on a related ordinance that council could take up over the next several weeks.

Borough Manager Tom Fountaine said staff have been working on an ordinance that would potentially give the borough authority to enforce all or some of three COVID-19 mitigation measures. They include: 

- Prohibiting the formation of a line in the public right-of-way in commercial districts. Essentially, downtown businesses like bars and restaurants could not have lines of people waiting on the sidewalk to get inside.

- Requiring face coverings in certain circumstances. Fountaine said this could include the downtown district and, if the first measure is not included, lines in commercial districts.

- Further limiting outdoor gathering sizes on public and private property based on zoning.

Fountaine said borough staff is working with state entities, including the Department of Health and Liquor Control Board, to determine issues of municipal legal authority to enforce virus mitigation efforts.

Council expects to consider the ordinance at its Aug. 4 meeting.

Though the borough had already begun looking into the ordinance, the discussion came after a weekend that saw droves of people — primarily Penn State students — visiting the downtown to celebrate what would have been the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, before it was canceled and moved to a virtual event. Scenes of long lines outside some bars spurred a number of people to take to social media to express their alarm at the general lack of social distancing and masking they observed around the downtown. (A StateCollege.com reporter observed varying degrees of mask-wearing in bar lines though far less among people walking around downtown.)

Several council members said the crowds and seeming lack of adherence to public health guidelines was an ominous sign for what's to come when Penn State students return en masse next month.

"I think this past weekend was a dress rehearsal for the fall, and it went poorly," Councilman Evan Myers said. "If it was a dress rehearsal, my question is will the play be closed before the curtain even goes up?"

When it comes to enforcement of COVID-19 requirements, orders from Gov. Tom Wolf and Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine have been a mixed bag. Health officers and law enforcement have some ability to address business safety orders, Assistant Borough Manager Tom King said.

But King said, the focus is on education and warnings first and to only issue a citation if they do not resolve the issue. (Complaints can be submitted through a Department of Health form, and those about borough businesses can also be directed to [email protected] or the non-emergency police line at 814-234-7150. 

Most recently, an order signed by Levine mandates masks, with some exceptions, in outdoor public spaces where 6 feet of social distancing cannot be maintained, as well as on public transportation, at health care services and in other workplaces. According to the state, King said, that order is not to be enforced by law enforcement.

"This no local law enforcement of this latest masking order is just for this order," King said. "They continue to indicate that local law enforcement does have authority and is asked to enforce the business masking requirement and other orders that have been issued by the governor and the Department of Health prior to July 1."

The Liquor Control Board also has authority to sanction liquor license holders, up to revoking a license, for failure to comply with business orders for bars and restaurants.

The state police Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement conducts regular checks of licensees. According to a release on Monday afternoon, the Altoona enforcement office, which covers Centre County, conducted 166 licensee checks between July 6-12 and issued no warnings or notices of violation related to COVID-19 mitigation measures.

While the legal issues of the potential borough ordinance are still being explored, as a home-rule municipality State College is able to enact ordinances for anything that is not specifically denied by the state.

The resolution approved by council on Monday, modeled on one passed by the Centre County commissioners earlier this month, endorses the masking order and stresses the growing number of scientific studies that have shown the effectiveness in limiting the spread of COVID-19. While it encourages masking, the resolution is not legislation and has no enforcement mechanism

Councilwoman Theresa Lafer was the lone "no" vote on the resolution, not because she disagreed with the sentiment, but because she felt it was "redundant and unnecessary."

"This past weekend is a terrible foreshadowing of what is about to come," she said. "I think we need to leave behind resolutions and go as quickly as possible to an ordinance that we make as strong as possible, and if they want to then pull us back that’s fine."

Councilwoman Deanna Behring said the resolution was an important message, but the ultimate goal is an ordinance with enforcement power.

"The resolution sends a signal and is really important tonight, but I think the end game really is the ordinance on August 4 where we give ourselves as a community more power for enforcement of some of these concerns that we all witnessed this past weekend during the underground Arts Fest," Behring said.

Councilman Peter Marshall and Council President Jesse Barlow both said action is needed, but with the sheer volume of students, they have concerns about how the ordinance can be enforced. 

 

Barlow noted he's heard about the weekend crowds "more from citizens, from more diverse sources, than almost every event we’ve dealt with since I’ve been on council, with a couple of exceptions."

Councilwoman Janet Engeman voiced support for masking throughout downtown, saying distancing there is practically impossible even outdoors.

"If you’re on a sidewalk and walking from point A to point B you can’t maintain social distancing because someone may come out of a store and walk right out in front of you," she said.

Working with Penn State

An ordinance would not only give the borough enforcement latitude, it also would provide Penn State a mechanism to enforce violations of its student code of conduct that occur off-campus.

During a webinar for local leaders held last week by the university, Vice President of Student Affairs Damon Sims said that on campus, where students will be required to wear masks, compliance with mitigation measures will be encouraged through various means but students who repeatedly refuse to comply will be referred to the Office of Student Conduct. 

Sims said during the webinar, which was viewed by StateCollege.com, that the university will "ratchet up the consequences and we will not be fearful of applying summary suspensions from the university where necessary."

Off-campus, the university is working with the borough. Sims says Penn State has "one of the most aggressive off-campus [conduct] policies in the country," but relies on citations, charges or referrals from local police to enforce it.

"We’re working closely with the borough to determine what more might be done to limit the risk posed by off-campus activities, particularly around social gatherings in private spaces and interactions in commercial establishments, including bars," he said. "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."

Fraternities have agreed to an indefinite moratorium on social functions, and Sims said the university has made clear it will not approve them. Organizations and individuals found to be involved with large gatherings will face disciplinary consequences. Since fraternity houses are private residences, though, Penn State has "limited reach," so administrators are reaching out to the alumni boards and housing corporations that own them to encourage imposing their own restrictions.

Penn State has also involved the borough and other community partners in the development of what Fountaine called "an aggressive and comprehensive communication effort within the community."

The goal is to have consistent messaging throughout the community about COVID-19 regulations and prevention measures, and will include a major online component as well as physical signage.

"[The borough's] goal is ultimately to have a variety of different means of transmitting this message including streetlight banners, traffic signal box wraps, social messaging, and the various communication channels that the borough has to provide information," Fountaine said.

The project is moving quickly to be in place before students arrive. Classes begin on Aug. 24 but students will move into residence halls in phases starting a week earlier.

Rachel Pell, associate vice president for strategic communications at Penn State, said during the webinar that consultant M Booth is working with the university's communications offices, student affairs and Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics on the effort.

A focus group with students was recently completed.

"No surprise, they only confirmed what we know are our challenges ahead. Students don’t want to be told what to do. They don’t want their liberties to be taken away," Pell said. "However, outcomes and consequences [are] what really caught their attention so it’s a direction we need to focus on as we proceed ahead."

"It’s important that we all remember that there is no magic answer to shift the entire community to follow the necessary steps," Pell later added. "However, we hope we can shift a significant group to take those necessary steps in order to maintain the health and safety of not just our university community and on campus but in our communities at large across the commonwealth."

The borough, Penn State and Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County also have formed a task force to address a broad range of issues related to COVID-19, from municipal regulations to contact-tracing programs, Fountaine said. The task force involves Mount Nittany Medical Center, Downtown State College Improvement District, Centre County government and the state health department.

Widespread cooperation throughout the community with a focused goal will be key to managing the return of students and public health concerns. Several council members on Monday said they have concerns about what the coming months may hold. 

"The fact is we could face a health disaster if this isn’t done correctly," Myers said. "I haven’t heard what correctly is yet. I’m very much concerned about it."



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