Mask mandate approved for Yates County office buildings

John Christensen
The Chronicle Express
Yates County Legislature

PENN YAN — At a special meeting at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 7, the Yates County Legislature voted in favor of an immediate mask mandate in all county buildings due to the recent increase in COVID-19 cases, believed to be caused by the delta variant.

Before the vote, Yates County Public Health Director Annmarie Flanagan reported to the legislature that Yates is now in the “high” transmission range after 19 new cases were reported over Labor Day weekend, with 15 more potential cases being investigated from a daycare facility and from a wedding party.

Flanagan cited the recommendations from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), which requires employers provide a safe environment for all employees. She warned of potential OSHA penalties and liability if the county fails to do so when it is within their power by reasonable measures.

“Politics has no role in science, but politics is part of this debate. We need to protect people in our county buildings,” advised Flanagan.

The approval measure followed more than an hour and a half of debate and public comments. County employees spoke on both sides of the measure. Most vocal in the discussion were Legislator Carlie Chilson and Benton Town Supervisor John Prendergast who is also chairman of the Yates County Republican Committee.

Taking a position of individual liberties, Chilson said, “It’s the right of Americans not to wear a mask. People don't want to go back into bondage."

Prendergast warned the legislature at length that the mask mandates were an attempt by "the government" to take control, claiming that "Marxism is out there," and comparing the mandate to the yellow stars Jews were forced to wear by the Nazis in the Holocaust. As Prendergast's voice rose more and more, Legislature Chairman Douglas Paddock called an end to his comments, saying his three minutes had elapsed. Prendergast returned to the podium after others' comments to ask the legislature if they knew how many "illegal aliens" were in the county, and placed the blame for the rise in Covid cases on immigrants coming across the U.S. border with Mexico.

This prompted Jerusalem resident Brenda Reynolds to voice her support of the measure and to comment to the legislature, “I also don’t appreciate the fear-mongering here.” Several others in the audience and attending by Zoom also spoke in favor of the measure.

Legislators Tim Culter, Bonnie Percy, and Patrick Killen all spoke in favor of the masks as a reasonable burden for the sake of public safety.

The final vote was 7-2, with the nays coming from Legislators Dan Banach and Carlie Chilson, both of District III, representing Milo and Penn Yan. Absent were Bill Holgate, Jim Multer, and Ed Bronson. Rick Willson was present and contributed to the debate, but left the chamber before the vote due to a work obligation.

Effective immediately, masks must be worn by all employees and visitors to Yates County buildings while the county's Covid transmission rates are "substantial" or "high." Masks were already required at the County Courthouse by order of the State Court System. 

When the transmission rate falls to "moderate," only the unvaccinated must wear masks. When the rate falls to "low," masks will be voluntary. The measure applies to all common areas of the county buildings. Individuals are not required to wear masks in their own offices or where barriers offer protection. The mask mandate will be updated weekly based on the seven-day average transmission rate of positive tests.