City Council members will wait until January to reconsider the citywide mask mandate, the council decided Tuesday.

But, the group also directed city staff to begin exploring options for an “exit strategy” from an ordinance that requires most residents to wear masks while inside structures accessible to the public.

Tuesday was the second time that council members have looked at a proposal to rescind an ordinance they put into place in July in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, one that specifies residents must wear masks while inside commercial structures and other structures accessible to the public. Exemptions are provided (those with health issues and children under age 6 aren’t required to wear a mask, for example).

While Lawton’s decision meant the city joined with other entities that have imposed similar mandates, it also has drawn repeated criticism from some residents and business owners who say the mandate is government overreach and a violation of their Constitutional rights, is unsafe because of the problems masks cause, and relies on questionable science and statistics.

But, supporters — who include members of the medical community — say the requirement is among the proven ways to control the spread of COVID-19, and is necessary at a time when incidents of the virus are increasing.

The council spent almost 1.5 hours listening to arguments for and against the mandate, before voting unanimously to revisit the issue Jan. 21, or three months from now. It’s the same decision the group made in August when presented with an agenda item that would have deleted the mask ordinance from city code, effectively immediately.

Council members had that option Tuesday, but didn’t take it, ultimately agreeing to allow the existing mandate to remain in place until they discuss it again in January.

“We, as a committee, agreed a mask mandate is working,” said Ward 4 Councilman Jay Burk, a member of the council’s mask study committee, adding that a lengthy review of data helped them reach that conclusion.

But, several council members also insisted the council needed to start working toward what Ward 8 Councilman Randy Warren and Ward 6 Councilman Sean Fortenbaugh called an exit strategy, criteria that would specify when the mask mandate could be dropped.

“We don’t want to wear them forever,” said Fortenbaugh, who has been a long-standing critic of what he calls action by a governmental body to mandate masks.

Warren suggested a matrix similar to one he had created, one setting specific goals for active and new cases on a weekly basis that, once reached, would allow the community to drop the mandate.

Burk said the committee discussed that idea, but feared creating a situation where the mandate would be dropped, then reimplemented a short time later if COVID-19 cases rose again.

“I wish I had a number,” Burk said, adding that while “we all want an exit date,” committee members feared they would cause bigger problems for business owners with a continuous “stop and start” process.

Brandie Combs, regional director of the state health department’s Region 5, said she believes it won’t be until the county has “an abundance” of vaccine available before the community could safely begin to pull back from the mask mandate.

Council members said they still want to explore the idea of an exit strategy, even as many also indicated the majority of their constituents — residents and businesses — favor leaving the mask mandate in place because of the safety it provides.

Ward 1 Councilwoman Mary Ann Hankins, who noted her informal survey indicated 93 percent of her constituents favored the mask mandate, said she heard from one business owner who said people won’t shop at his establishment if the city drops the requirement. Masks keep us safe, she said she was told.

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