David Lias

There’s a scene in the film “The Sound of Music” that has come to mind more than once recently. Baron von Trapp finds a Nazi flag hanging on the outside wall of his mansion.

He tears it down. He rips it up.

The flag represented pure evil to the baron. He wanted nothing to do with it and, as we all know, he and his family fled from their homeland to escape the cruelty of Nazi Germany.

This scene has been playing on repeat in my mind as the city of Vermillion has taken action to hopefully contain the spread of COVID-19 in the community. This latest bit of legislating by the city council comes as Vermillion’s public and private schools launch this week and students at the University of South Dakota have returned to campus classrooms.

The Vermillion City Council has implemented a two-pronged approach to hopefully reduce COVID’s impact in the community. It originally had explored the idea of passing an ordinance requiring the wearing of face masks in all buildings accessible to the public.

That idea didn’t go over well with the city’s liability insurance carrier.

City Manager John Prescott noted in a memo to the city council earlier this month that the city attorney and an attorney for the city’s public liability insurance carrier expressed reluctance for the city council to adopt this type of ordinance.

One of the main concerns for the city attorney was the need to provide appropriate exceptions for individuals that may not be best suited to wear a mask or face covering.

The attorney for the insurance company offered several concerns. One concern is potential conflict with the ADA. Other concerns involved the fine that would be involved and the enforcement of such an ordinance – likely by the police department.

The insurance company offered that a resolution might be a better approach. The resolution would not open the city up to a number of potential legal issues, Prescott wrote. A resolution could strongly encourage retailers to use face masks or face coverings within their businesses. It was suggested that a resolution might be the most appropriate first step.

That advice, along with discussions among city staff and council members, brought us a new resolution that strongly encourages but does not mandate the use of face masks by the public when entering a building in Vermillion that is open to the public.

The city council also crafted an ordinance that received final approval Monday night requiring the owners or tenants of those public buildings to place a small sign near each entrance that simply reads “Masks Expected By City Resolution Out Of Respect For Your Health And Others.”

I was required to take a mass communication law class while studying journalism in college and I’ll admit I can’t recall us touching on the subject matter of whether the government could mandate that individuals or businesses express a certain message – in Vermillion’s case, that required message, stated in a more conversational tone on a required sign, is “We can’t make you wear a mask, but we sure hope you will during the pandemic. Please?”

There are critics of this week’s city council action and I get where they’re coming from. A portion of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution reads “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech…” I admittedly am no legal scholar, and much of what was taught in my mass communication law class dealt with legal challenges to government mandates that had “limited” speech, not required it.

My understanding of “abridging the freedom of speech” means that the government may not penalize people or organizations based on what they say or write, except in exceptional circumstances.

So, I think we shouldn’t get too worked up by the city council’s action this week.

Mandates of various sorts have been issued and enforced by cities, counties and states all over the nation this past year as COVID-19 has wreaked havoc, especially in denser populated areas. Therefore, I’m not going to have a fainting spell over the council’s decision that certain buildings post a sign near their entrance with the message that masks are “expected” (not required.)

The affected buildings listed in the new city ordinance are the same ones that the city was forced to close in March following an executive order issued by Gov. Noem.

Gov. Noem will likely argue that she never mandated anything COVID-19 related, but when she suggested schools close in late March, they naturally did. When she issued her executive order, cities and counties were given the heavy burden of passing emergency ordinances that closed virtually all of the buildings that now simply have to post a sign near their door.

The city’s new ordinance does not force all of us to carry the heavy yoke of a new law. It instead lands with light butterfly feet on our shoulders, requiring some in our community to post a sign that they can download from the city’s web page and tape on their front door (that’s what we’ve done at our office).

Those required signs simply state this: Masks Expected.

Wearing a mask has always been a good idea since the pandemic began to spread in our country and this week, in particular, has offered one reminder after the other of why masks should be part of our wardrobes.

In-person classes at UNC-Chapel Hill quickly had to be shifted to online after 130 students tested positive for COVID-19. This week Michigan State and Notre Dame also had to suspend in-person classes after COVID-19 surges on those campuses.

Today, the Sioux Falls School District confirmed its first COVID-19 case of this new school year and classes haven’t even started. That district’s first day of school is Aug. 27.

Also today (Wednesday), the South Dakota Department of Health daily report shows 123 positive COVID-19 tests in the state and one death from the illness.

Oh, South Dakota State University also decided today to cancel its Hobo Days Parade this fall.

If this isn’t a good time to follow the city council’s suggestions to hopefully contain COVID-19 in our community, I don’t know what is.

Please do as the city has suggested from its actions of this week. If the new ordinance applies to you, post a small sign. And everyone -- please wear a mask.

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