Jasper council to consider mask ordinance Tuesday

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The Jasper City Council will consider an ordinance Tuesday to give better enforcement to its mask order, as the city's municipal judge said he would currently have to throw out such cases for being improperly before him.  

The council unanimously passed a resolution in July that strongly recommends people in Jasper wear face masks while in public. In September, the city said police would start approaching people asking them to wear masks if they are not and to start issuing tickets and making arrests if necessary. 

An ordinance would take the enforcement to the next level. 

Municipal Judge Jim Brakefield told the council in a work session Friday that with the state mandate to wear a mask, questions have been raised on the best way to legally enforce it. Gov. Kay Ivey has made wearing a mask part of her Safer at Home emergency order for fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Her state order is set to expire Nov. 8, but it has been extended several times. 

Brakefield also noted how cases have been increasing again in the nation, particularly in Walker County. He anticipates it will be extended repeatedly until a vaccine is ready.

The Alabama Department of Public Health's weekly risk status report in the state for COVID-19 showed Friday that Walker and Blount counties are  now in the high category, the second highest level. Fayette, Winston, Cullman and Jefferson counties are very high, while Marion County is moderate and Tuscaloosa if very low. 

The previous week, Walker and Jefferson had been moderate, and most of the counties around Walker had been low. 

Brakefield said he had conversations with Jasper police officials on the best way to enforce the mask ordinance. 

"You can issue a summons and complaint, but that is practically impossible, because it requires them to have certain type of paperwork and certain things to do, and to be able to serve that," he said. 

Brakefield, noting Assistant Police Chief Paul Tucker was present, said Tucker and others would rather use uniform non-traffic citations - which requires an ordinance in place, but can cover a long list of charges. No local ordinance is in place for the mask ordinance. 

City court has been moved to the Jasper Civic Center for social distancing, and Brakefield said he requires a mask to be worn properly. Officer Paul Agnew does a good job making sure those attending are wearing the mask before court starts, he said. 

"We actually have to really get on some. We threatened to hold one in contempt the other day because he wasn't going to put it on," Brakefield said. 

He didn't want an arrest to take place without an ordinance, because he would then have to dismiss it because it was not properly before him. "That's not where the city needs to be," he said.

Councilman Gary Cowen asked who would enforce the mask ordinance currently. Brakefield said it could be Alabama State Troopers or maybe other law enforcement entities - but the city could not. 

Cowen asked about county enforcement. "They're not doing it. Currently - let me put it that way," Brakefield said, adding there is a mechanism for the Walker County Commission to adopt so they can enforce it. "There is something out there for them to be able to do that," he said. 

Brakefield could enforce the order in his court due to his contempt powers. "I can set the rules of my court," aided by the Safer at Home order," he said. However, he said he has used "great judicial restraint in that. We've really not had that big of a problem" except maybe one or two this year, thanks to Agnew's work.

Tucker told the council, "It is going to give us the ability to enforce it in a way that we feel is more appropriate instead of putting handcuffs on somebody and taking them to the county jail and processing them through District Court to enforce the governor's order." A non-traffic citation would summon them to municipal court. 

Brakefield said, "If you are out and about and not around people, you don't have to have it on. But once you start getting into that close contact, you are supposed to have it. Whether an owner of a business is going to enforce it or not, that is one thing, but an officer of the law can still enforce it." 

In response to a question from Mayor David O'Mary, Brakefield said such an ordinance would have to be passed each time for any future pandemics and would not be able to stand for all those coming forward. He said the ordinance would likely be COVID-19 specific and it would "go away" when the governor quits extending the state order. The local ordinance can always be rescinded. 

Councilman Willie Moore said he would hope that police officers would "be kind," noting that people might come in from out of the city, county or the state. Brakefield said officers have been usually telling people they need a mask and would likely continue to do that, unless someone "thumbs their nose at them." 

Moore said, "You have some jerks out there." 

Tucker said police officers are trying to take what they call "an Andy Griffith approach to it," referring to the television sitcom about the genial country sheriff. He can only recall two incidents where they have tried to fully enforce the mask ordinance, as most of the community complies when they are approached by officers.