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Mask off: How the mask mandate is being enforced after its implementation

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The Athena Cinema in Athens displaying "Wash Hands, Wear Masks, Watch Movies."

Athens City Council unanimously passed a mask mandate July 13 requiring face coverings to be worn in public spaces, including inside businesses open to the public and at outdoor spaces.

The potential fine for being caught not wearing a mask in Athens is $100. A citation for not wearing a mask does not include a criminal charge, and enforcement is complaint-driven, meaning people must report instances of noncompliance.

Over a month after the introduction of the mandate, however, public records show that the Athens Police Department (APD) has issued zero citations for mask non-compliance.

This is not for lack of complaints.

APD records show there have been 41 citizen complaints for mask non-compliance since the ordinance was passed, with many complaints directed at businesses throughout Athens. It is unclear from the records whether complaints located at businesses are against the establishment or an individual inside.

On East State Street, Walmart and Kroger both had three complaints listed in public records, while Lowe’s had two.

Several bars also received citizen complaints: Cat’s Corner and The C.I. Neither bar responded to requests for comment.

Other locations that received complaints included the Stewart-MacDonald building on Shafer Street, the Theta Chi fraternity house, multiple at The Summit at Coates Run and the APD building on College Street.

APD Lt. Jeff McCall said although the order incurs a fine for noncompliance, APD has taken an “educational” response to complaints. Many who moved into Athens in recent weeks may come from areas without a mask mandate, McCall said. 

If APD receives a complaint, McCall said APD officers inform the person of mandatory mask wearing, and if they do not have a mask, the APD officers offer one.

“We want to focus on the educational aspect so everyone is coming back to the community with awareness of the new ordinance,” McCall said. “I think with it being a new ordinance, (our approach) has been beneficial to both the city and our community.”

Athens Mayor Steve Patterson, one of the architects of the ordinance, said although it took a couple weeks, he was impressed with the general response to the mandate. Patterson estimated there is 95 to 99% compliance in mask wearing, even during welcome weekend.

Patterson wasn’t buying that individuals new to town may be unaware of the mask mandate. He pointed to posters informing residents of the mandate throughout downtown.

“It’s not like there weren’t billboards as you drive into Athens,” he said.

Despite photos published by Athens NEWS reporter Ben Peters, which circulated on Twitter of closely-packed crowds gathering outside of bars — some individuals not wearing masks or wearing them improperly — Patterson said he believes most students are understanding and compliant.

Patterson said large gatherings are a continuous problem, but Ohio U’s phased-in approach helped to mitigate some of the excessive large gatherings seen on college campuses throughout the country in recent weeks, including at Ohio State University.

Public records show a total of 40 large gathering complaints in the month of August. Many were centered around student housing areas such as Mill Street or The Summit.

Patterson said the city isn’t targeting students, and he asks residents and students alike to avoid large gatherings.

“This isn’t a ‘hey, we’re going to be on the hunt’ — it’s anybody. It can be a group gathering for whatever reason in a park or not wearing masks,” Patterson said. “The overarching statement from me would be that we all need to work together to make sure we’re not only protecting the residents, but also the student body here.”

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