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Monday, August 23, 2021

City Council Covid Discussion Sparks Debate and Potential Mayoral Challenge

Council added "Covid" as an agenda item to have a discussion about the city's role, if any, in encouraging health guidelines.

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by Robin Gee, city council beat editor

Under old business on the agenda for the Fort Thomas City Council August meeting was a discussion of Covid and the role the city government should play, if any, in the response to the Delta variant and recent upsurge in cases.

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The intent of the item, said Mayor Eric Haas, was to have an open discussion on the topic and not to pass any resolutions or similar actions, yet the item drew a vocal group of people to the meeting concerned that the city was about to issue a resolution or mandate.

It also sparked a discussion among council members that made clear not all were in agreement on the role of the city in the matter. In fact, the two council members who requested the item be added to the agenda, Connie Grubbs and Ken Bowman, both said they were disappointed in the outcome of the discussion and some of the responses of their colleagues on council.

Bowman, who has been an advocate for the city taking a role in encouraging adherence to health guidelines, said the discussion has inspired him to seriously consider running for mayor himself. The next mayoral election would be on the ballot in November of 2022. Current mayor Eric Haas, is in his second term, which are four years each cycle. 

"I think we need more leadership in times like this, and now I’m giving even more serious consideration to challenging in the mayoral race that’s coming up. I have until November to decide, but I’m pretty inspired and driven in that direction now," he said.

Putting Covid response on the agenda

"I think the hope for having it on the agenda at all was just to have some dialog about what the city’s role should be under the circumstances,” explained Bowman. “And in my mind, and I think Connie agrees, is that we’ve been remiss as a city in doing what I consider to be our most important role to provide accurate information and guidance and links or information related to this pandemic from trusted sources like our Northern Kentucky Health Department," Bowman said.

"I wanted to have a discussion about our lack of messaging...if you go to our website, you’ll be hard pressed to find the word Covid anywhere... In the last peak of the pandemic we did at least have messaging on our website and some links...but it’s as if right now we’re acting like it’s not a real thing and all the trends we see aren’t really there... I think all of that is really a shame, because we’re all going to be paying a price."

He added that he is not alone in his concerns. "I’ve seen a lot of correspondence lately from the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, and they see it as a pro-business thing to encourage masking and encourage vaccinations and to connect people with credible sources like the health department for information."

"It’s true that Ken and I have been vocal about trying to get the city to have some messaging and, in some ways, strong messaging, about the best ways to protect each other and our businesses," said Grubbs. "We need our businesses to stay open. We want them to thrive, and we can’t do that if people are either afraid to go out, or it’s not safe so we wanted to discuss ways to do that."

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Encouragement, not mandates

The council members spoke with the mayor about how best to approach the issue, said Grubbs. They considered "all the tools in the toolbox," including ordinances, resolutions and proclamations, but in the end rejected each of these, she said.

The feeling was that using any of these "tools" could result in resistance and not encouragement. " we purposely decided not to use any of the tools – because what we want to do is save lives, save our businesses and help our neighbors. And we didn’t feel that any of those tools would accomplish those goals."

The mayor said he also wanted to take the opportunity to bring residents up-to-date on the city’s efforts. In particular, he said, there had been requests to set up vaccination opportunities at city events this summer.

Before the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra concert, he said, the city had reached out to the Northern Kentucky Health Department to invite them to set up a vaccination station. Health Department officials declined, however, noting that recent attempts to vaccinate people at events have not been very productive and not the best use of resources.

"What the Health Department is trying to do now is focus on getting the word out to encourage people. In fact, a combination of three of the largest chambers of commerce...put out to businesses to encourage vaccination among their employees. There are a lot of businesses now that are requiring vaccination for people to continue employment," Haas said.

"What I got from the health department is that those things are going to be more effective than anything we as a city can do. Encouraging people. So that’s where we are now."

Public reaction

Four people addressed council to state their opposition to mask mandates and to vaccines, and to outline their mistrust of information provided by government entities such as the CDC.

One resident said the ever changing and sometimes contradictory information coming from government health officials fueled her belief that the information was unreliable. She said she felt the city should not play a role at all in providing any health information. "You must be 100 percent sure of everything you put on your website," she said.

Another said her concern was that she felt being required to wear a mask or to get a vaccination was a violation of her personal rights and, in her belief, the government’s role was only to protect her rights. She said she did not want her tax dollars to go to any mandates.

Haas reiterated that the goal of putting the item on the agenda was not to propose a resolution, mandate or other government action. He said his own goal was to have an open discussion in light of recent events.

Council reaction

Bowman and Grubbs reiterated the need to develop a plan to encourage mask wearing and other health measures. They said adding information to the website, putting messaging on city signage and taking other opportunities to get the word out will go a long way.

City Administrator Ron Dill said the city would be looking at its protocols for city events and was also considering a page with informational links on the city’s website. He also said the city has been speaking with a group of business people who sponsored blood drives at the Fort Thomas Farmers Market and who expressed interest in vaccine stations for flu shots and pneumonia vaccines, as well as Covid vaccines.

Haas said he agreed with people expressing concern about the validity of information on the website. "My personal opinion is that it’s frustrating how political things have become and how hard it is to trust what you hear, especially with the CDC going back and forth in the beginning."

If the governor issues a mandate, he said, the city will follow but so far that has not happened he said.

Council member Jeff Bezold said he agreed with some of the concerns brought up by those who spoke. "Not everyone sitting up here feels the same as Councilman Bowman. I am of the mind that adults can make their own decisions. So, I don’t want you guys to leave here thinking council is leaning one way or the other. It’s still a conversation to be had. I like the idea that as a city we should get as much information out there as we can, then adults can decide for themselves."

Council members Ben Pendery and Adam Blau both said they agreed that the city should not mandate any behavior and supported personal liberties.

In the end, Haas said the city never intended a mask mandate or any other ruling and that maybe the best thing the city should do is nothing at all. He said the website does not support emergent information, and no one goes to the website for Covid information.
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Different philosophies on the government’s role

Bowman and Grubbs said the city should be doing more.

"Do we have a right as a city to message how to keep our businesses and our neighbors safe? I think that’s well within our rights as a city and an obligation," said Grubbs. "We are not mandating masks. But, we can set an example. I’m a leader in the community, I consider myself a leader on council and I wore my mask, because leaders lead by example. That’s just my take."

Bowman agreed, "I think we’re completely lacking in our responsibility to do that, and I wish we had more fellow council members that agreed with that position...It really bothers me because I think that’s the most important role we have as a government entity and a local city government to protect our people when we can," he said.

"Whatever I can do to promote public health and keep our businesses alive by keeping the population healthy, I think is really important. I feel really strongly about this," he added.

He said he is motivated by the concern of what the future may hold. "I’m really worried what’s coming down the pike now that school’s open... I think we’re going to see more young people affected, and it’s not pro business that’s for sure. We’ll end up, if we ignore it, having to shut down again. But if we take it seriously now, and we take the right action, we could maybe avert what we had to go through last time."

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