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Cleveland City Council Requires Masks In Public As COVID-19 Cases Spread

Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley, wearing a mask, walks up Cleveland City Hall steps in June. Legislation passed Wednesday requires face masks in most public settings in the city.  [Nick Castele / ideastream]
Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley, wearing a mask, walks up the steps of city hall in June. Legislation passed Wednesday requires face masks in many public settings.

Cleveland City Council on Wednesday voted to impose fines on people and businesses who flout the city’s COVID-19 mask requirements.

The ordinance requires masks inside non-residential buildings, outdoors when 6 feet of social distancing isn’t possible, and in taxis and ride shares.

Violators will receive a warning the first time and a $25 fine after that.

After a warning, businesses could receive fines of $1,000 to $3,000 for failing to make sure employees and customers wear masks. And businesses could be fined for failing to sanitize a workplace after an employee tests positive for the virus.

But officials in Mayor Frank Jackson’s administration told council they didn’t plan a punitive approach to enforcing mask rules. Mask mandate violations are a civil offense, not a criminal one, and officials said they weren’t looking to rack up numerous citations.

“Our officers out in the field are going to have extra masks that they will offer to folks that don’t have them,” Police Chief Calvin Williams said. “We will be doing spot checks at businesses around the city to make sure their employees, as well as the folks that patronize the businesses, are in compliance.”

Jackson issued mask requirements early last week, just before Gov. Mike DeWine ordered the wearing of masks in Cuyahoga County and other high-risk areas. The legislation before council was meant to codify those rules, officials said.

At a telephone town hall Tuesday night, Jackson said the city will focus on locations with the highest risk of COVID-19 spread.

“And that is where?” the mayor asked. “Where you have large gatherings of people who are in close proximity to each other in a large venue inside. And that boils down basically to bars, restaurants and nightclubs.”

The ordinance lists several exceptions for mask requirements, including for children under 10, people who are exercising while more than 6 feet from others, workers alone in an office, officiants at religious services and those who are eating or drinking.  

Some council members balked at the original proposed business fines of up to $5,000, voting to reduce the penalties. Council also amended the ordinance to ensure individuals receive a warning before a fine, though city officials said they had already planned warnings as a first step.

Several council members also said they didn’t want to rely too heavily on police to enforce the measure. Another amendment added firefighters to the list of police and public health staff empowered to enforce the mask ordinance.

Ward 8 Councilman Mike Polensek, the only member to vote against the mask rules, said he feared it would overburden the police. Councilman Blaine Griffin (Ward 6) said he was concerned that police confrontations over masks could escalate.

“Let’s be honest. There’s tensions right now between the police and the public,” Griffin said. “And we want to be very cautious not to put our police officers in unnecessary situations, nor our public in unnecessary situations.” 

Councilman Brian Kazy (Ward 16) pushed for a tougher stance on masks, saying the city’s approach sent mixed messages about the severity of the pandemic.

“Are we biting our nose to spite our face?” Kazy said. “Are we just spinning that hamster wheel going round and round? I don’t understand, if there’s not any teeth behind this.”

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.