Athens City Council met Monday evening and voted unanimously to amend the city’s mask ordinance to no longer require mask-wearing for residents who are fully vaccinated. 

Councilwoman Sarah Grace, D-At Large, introduced a revision to the ordinance in a meeting May 24 after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published new guidelines May 13, stating fully vaccinated individuals do not need to wear masks or physically distance themselves. 

Despite the new CDC guidelines, Councilman Sam Crowl, D-3rd Ward, said some business owners expressed they were not ready to lift the mask mandate. Additionally, Crowl asked Grace if local establishments could require proof of vaccination upon entering the business without a mask.

“Are there any sticky situations where somebody says, ‘I’m vaccinated’, and then there’s an argument that they can’t prove it?” Crowl asked. “Are we going down that road?”

Grace assured Council that businesses have the option of keeping current mask policies in place if they choose to do so.

“If there are businesses, business owners, business managers that make the choice to continue to require mask-wearing, they have the option of doing that,” Grace said. “But the local ordinance is just changing to allow an exemption for individuals who are fully vaccinated.”

According to Grace, employees from one local business told her they want to continue requiring their customers to wear masks, though she did not share the name of the particular business. Grace also said it is not a violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996 for businesses to ask customers to show their vaccination cards, as long as customers do so willingly. 

“My gut feeling is that there won’t be any increased likelihood of confrontations at this point than there was previously,” Grace said. 

As of May 24, it is estimated that just over 17% of Athens County residents have received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine through the Athens City-County Health Department. By those same estimations, just under 15% of the population is fully vaccinated through the health department. 

Athens County saw a sharp increase of vaccinations following Governor Mike DeWine’s announcement of the “Vax-a-Million” lottery drawing. According to data provided by the governor’s office, there was a 144% increase in vaccinations in Athens County. 

In addition to discussion of the mask ordinance, the Outdoor Recreation Council of Appalachia, or ORCA, proposed that the city of Athens join other municipalities in membership with the organization. Jessie Powers, the executive director of ORCA, explained that the city would initially pay $90,000 a year to invest in the Baileys Trail system. Eventually, the city would pay ORCA every three years in a lump sum of $270,000 if approved. 

“Whether or not it’s coming out of the general fund or the transient guest tax, that’s quite a chunk,” Councilman Jeff Risner, D-2nd Ward, said. 

Mayor Steve Patterson explained that he expects the transient guest tax, which is paid by businesses like hotels that host tourists, to grow in the coming years. 

Council also discussed removing an ordinance that paused hiring for city employees. Additionally, City Auditor Kathy Hecht proposed a reorganization of the auditor’s office to hire two tax administrators rather than one administrator and one assistant. 

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