This article was updated Wednesday, Dec. 9 at 8:50 p.m. to clarify text in the second paragraph. Commissioners and Council have always offered the option for the public to tune in via Facebook Live during the pandemic.
ASHLAND -- Despite the statewide mask order in place since July 23, and the revised order issued in mid-November, most Ashland County and City leaders do not wear the face coverings at public meetings.
Both the Ashland County Commissioners and Ashland City Council have met in-person throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, always with the option -- and briefly with a requirement -- that the public tune in via Facebook Live.
Last week, two of the three Ashland County Commissioners met in-person without masks. The third joined the regular Thursday meeting via video call.
Typically, all three meet in-person with a few speakers, who are asked to take their masks off when speaking into a microphone, and a handful of spectators, who may or may not wear masks. Though the Commissioners sit side-by-side at the front of the room, tables and chairs are distanced to allow separation between the Commissioners, the speakers and in-person audience.
"It's really hard for people to hear us, if we wear masks," said Commissioner Jim Justice.
When Ashland City Council last convened Tuesday, Dec. 1 at the city's municipal building, three of the five city council representatives and Mayor Matt Miller did not wear masks. Only Second Ward councilman Robert Valentine and At-Large councilman Dan Lawson wore face coverings.
At the most recent meeting, approximately a dozen spectators gathered to watch in-person. Though distanced from Council, the in-person attendees were not separated from one another. Some wore masks. Others did not.
Outside the municipal building, a smaller group gathered to protest the actions of the city's elected leadership. Some held signs relating to race relations in the city, and two held signs about mask wearing.
"Watching them go in, they didn't have masks on, so I don’t feel very comfortable with it. They didn’t at the last meeting either. I don’t think that’s good leadership during a pandemic," said Ashland resident Marty Ross. "We do have a vaccine coming, but it’s not going to come overnight, and even when people start getting it, the rest of us still need to be vigil and wear our masks, do social distancing.
"The people of Ashland are not getting that message from their leaders."
She carried a cardboard sign reading, "We heart Bob Valentine. Covid is no hoax." She had taped a light blue, disposable mask over the heart.
Valentine is the only Ashland City Council member who has consistently worn a mask throughout the pandemic.
"He's the only one that I can consider worth anything on that panel ... The rest of them are followers, not leaders," said Ashland resident Heather Sample.
She stood beside Ross, holding up a whiteboard. Her sign read, "Wear a mask!!" She had drawn a smiley face, using the dots from the exclamation points as the eyes, but when asked about her message, her tone was serious.
"I want people to wear masks because people don’t know who other people have to go around, and it could be someone's grandma, and I don’t want their grandma to die because somebody didn’t wear a damn mask," Sample said.
City leaders -- Mayor Miller, Fourth Ward councilwoman Angela Woodward and Third Ward councilman Dennis Miller -- cited social distancing as a reason they don't wear masks at council meetings.
"Because we are far enough away from the audience and each other, we feel comfortable that we are adequately protected," said Mayor Miller. "Also, from folks at home, we’ve heard it’s been hard for them to hear at times what’s being said when it’s muffled by a mask.
"You know, in many different settings, churches for instance, the presenter is able to forego a mask, and I think that’s the same principle at work here."
Valentine, however, feels differently about face coverings at council meetings.
"I find it extremely important to wear a mask at city council meetings. I have worn a mask since our first meeting in March. I have always worn a mask and think as leaders of the community we should all be leading by example," Valentine said. "We must listen to the medical experts and follow what they tell us to do to lessen the impact of this virus."
Lawson wore a mask to the most recent meeting, but has not consistently worn one like Valentine.
"I do wear a mask at the council meetings because I was potentially exposed to the virus and do not want to risk exposing others," Lawson said.
Council president Steve Workman did not reply to requests for comment prior to publication of this article.
Do leaders wear masks elsewhere?
Though most local leaders have not displayed mask usage at public meetings, all reported wearing masks into area businesses and the majority encouraged others to do so, too.
"I think now more than ever it’s more important than ever for people to wear masks when they go into our local businesses, restaurants and bars because businesses can be harmed by being closed by the state of Ohio," Mayor Miller said. "In this community, we’ve all worked so hard to bring these businesses to life in the downtown and across the city. We don’t want to do anything to harm them."
He has been seen without face coverings at ribbon cutting events, the Veterans' Breakfast in November and the Christmas Parade on Saturday.
"I have always worn a mask when I’ve felt it was the right thing to do. Certainly, when you’d go into a medical facility or nursing home, always wear a mask," the mayor said.
Councilwoman Woodward, who is also the executive director of the Ashland County Cancer Association, reported wearing masks in situations that "are necessary or required."
"As I am in daily contact with a population that has compromised immune systems, it is of great importance that I play a role in keeping them healthy and safe through mask wearing, social distancing, and a sanitizing regiment," she said.
Lawson and Dennis Miller report wearing masks regularly.
Miller does not wear a mask in his private office, unless a customer or employee joins him, but he says he does wear face coverings elsewhere within his workplace, when shopping, in restaurants and at church.
"I regularly wear a mask whenever I am out in the public. I am a leukemia survivor and have a compromised immune system," Lawson said. "I believe wearing a mask will help diminish the spread of the virus."
The Commissioners shared that they wear masks when visiting stores. Also, they said they will wear masks when meeting with someone who requests it.
Denny Bittle reported wearing masks least often.
"It’s a personal belief, and I believe personally, for me, it’s more of a health issue in itself," Bittle said. "I put one on when I go into a store, and I ask everyone when I’m around them, 'Do you want me to wear one?' And if they do, then I will put it on. But if not, I won’t.
"I think it’s safer to not wear it unless you are around individuals with health issues."