RF Council debates city’s role in mask distribution

Posted 2/22/22

By Sarah Nigbor RIVER FALLS – Although the agenda for the Feb. 8 River Falls City Council was short, elected officials and city staff debated for close to an hour about the role they feel the city …

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RF Council debates city’s role in mask distribution


By Sarah Nigbor

RIVER FALLS – Although the agenda for the Feb. 8 River Falls City Council was short, elected officials and city staff debated for close to an hour about the role they feel the city should take in providing masks to city residents who want them.

City Administrator Scot Simpson reported Pierce County Public Health has N95 masks available at its River Falls and Ellsworth locations. Some are also available at City Hall (222 Lewis St.) in packs of two, should residents want them. However, Simpson said three city council members had reached out to him to request the city take a more active role in distributing masks to those who want them.

Alderperson-at-Large Benjamin Plunkett kicked off the discussion by assuring the public this issue is not about the council mandating people wear masks, nor is he requesting that. While the second wave of the Omicron variant is decreasing, circumstances are still dire, Plunkett said.

“We are seeing less cases every day,” he acknowledged. “Despite that, we are still at well over 2,500 dead Americans every day directly from this pandemic and hundreds of thousands of people are being infected or reinfected every day.”

The impact of the virus is significant, Plunkett said. Especially to employers in the form of workplace shortages due to employees being out sick. Businesses are having to close because they don’t have enough help. Plunkett blamed people’s lack of access to proper fitting personal protection equipment (PPE) and lack of knowledge on what type of masks fit them best.

“Humanity in the pats and humanity in the future will very likely face future viral pandemics,” Plunkett said.

People should be using National Institute of Occupational Health & Safety (NIOSH) approved N95 masks with a proper fit, because masks are not a one-size-fits-all solution, Plunkett continued. Masks fit people differently and most people don’t know what works best for them.

“It’s my belief that by providing, by helping to bridge that gap in knowledge between what is out there and what people can identify for themselves as a quality product, we can assist people in returning to work and in protecting our community from future contagion and potential pandemic disruptions,” Plunkett explained.

He recommended the city consider supplying up to 1,000 residents to start with five different samples of masks, so they can determine which fits them best.

Simpson strongly recommended letting the Pierce County Public Health Department handle mask distribution, due to their expertise in the area. His comments were followed by Alderperson Sean Downing’s strong request that the city do more because the lifelong effects of COVID have been found to be crippling in those suffering long-hauler symptoms. In his 15 years in health care, he’s never seen anything to contagious, he said. He’s especially worried about people living in close quarters in River Falls Housing Authority buildings and long-term care facilities.

“The way the virus works is it ping pongs off people, especially the most vulnerable,” Downing said. “If you’re in health care, this is the most remarkably contagious thing that a country has probably ever faced and because of the uniqueness of people with underlying conditions, they’re sitting ducks in buildings and those are the buildings that we need to look out for, and that’s part of the responsibility a community has for the people who are vulnerable.”

He proposed asking city staff to post signs in RFHA buildings, informing people they can obtain masks from the city if needed.

Simpson said while he appreciates council members good intentions, he personally recommends the city allow PCPH to take the lead on mask distribution. He brought council members’ concerns to PCPH and believes they are equipped to deal with it. Downing fired back that his request is simple (to communicate to residents that masks are available) and wouldn’t cost much.

“I’m fine with the masks the county is providing,” Downing said. “I just don’t believe that they’re effectively communicating because I have yet to hear from any of my constituents that they were made available to them.”

Alderperson-at-Large Scott Morrissette said he supports posting information in RFHA buildings, but questioned whether or not the city should post such information in all multi-family living buildings, public or private.

“We should be consistent across the board,” Morrissette said. “What about other vulnerable populations? I believe the city should facilitate anyone who wants a mask to be able to get a mask. I just ask that we be consistent.”

Rather than make a formal motion, Downing said he was comfortable directing city staff to post signs in RFHA buildings and places where vulnerable populations live. Simpson again said city staff are willing to take direction, but he believes the city has already made itself available to PCPH, which has adequate supply and distribution methods in place. Plus, he said, federal distribution is coming to area pharmacies.

Plunkett jumped in again and said Downing’s request is basically useless because masks do no good unless they are properly fitted. He then accused PCPH staff of neglecting PPE education at the cost of human lives and that their guidance has changed since August regarding masking. He forcefully said the city should have no problem procuring fives masks each for 1,000 people and using American Rescue Plan Act funds to do so. Simpson, who normally doesn’t speak against council members’ desires, felt the need to do so this time.

“I strongly disagree with your characterization of Public Health’s role historically and going forward,” Simpson directed to Plunkett. “They’ve been nothing but a partner. To answer your question about what’s changed since August, what hasn’t changed since August? We are flooded with new information every day.

“I think it’s completely irrational to blame Public Health in Pierce County for 900,000 deaths and I think it sends the wrong message to the community about the role Public Health has played. I’ve been cautious about pushing back on the council. I respectfully don’t think that’s a good approach to take as a leader.”

Simpson also said it’s a mistake to start appropriating ARPA funds without understanding the federal and state reporting requirements.

Ultimately, the council agreed to direct city staff to post signs in apartment buildings advising people of their ability to get masks if they so desire.

Other business

•The council approved Taryne N. Ternes as the agent for Holiday Stationstore #8.

•Simpson expressed condolences to the family of former council person David Reese, who passed away recently. Reese served on the council on-and-off 2009-2014.

•The council approved the appointment of City Engineer Todd Nickleski, effective immediately.

•The council approved the following mayor’s reappointments: Mark Anderson to the Historic Preservation Commission through January 2025 and Dick Rinehart to the Police & Fire Commission through January 2027.