Local control: Eureka Springs officials grapple with COVID-19 policies
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a four-part series on the effects of the recent COVID-19 surge in Eureka Springs.
At the end of spring, it looked as if things were getting back to normal in Eureka Springs.
Mayor Butch Berry began accepting event applications at the end of June, around the same time the city’s mask mandate expired. The City and Advertising Promotion Commission considered a fall marketing campaign, and the Music in the Park series was reintroduced in the increasingly crowded Basin Park.
Then COVID-19 cases soared again, this time because of the highly contagious Delta variant. Berry expressed frustration with the city’s position, saying he felt hamstrung by a state law signed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson in April that bans state and local mask mandates.
“It’s ridiculous that we can’t have control over our own community,” Berry said on Aug. 3. “We’re the ones who know best about our community, not the people in Little Rock. They have taken away the ability for all the communities in Arkansas to govern themselves.”
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox temporarily blocked the ban on Aug. 6, giving the Eureka Springs City Council the chance to enact a local mask mandate. And that’s exactly what the council did. On Monday, Aug. 9, the council approved a resolution requiring masks in all city-owned and operated facilities including buildings such as the Auditorium and City Hall.
“The council is reflective of our community in understanding the importance of becoming vaccinated and wearing a mask in order to not only protect ourselves but to protect other people as well as our visitors,” Berry said. “I’m very proud of our city council for doing the right thing on this issue.”
Council member Harry Meyer said mask mandates are necessary, comparing the Delta variant of COVID-19 to chicken pox. Meyer said the variant spreads faster and causes more serious illness than the first wave of COVID-19.
“That’s how contagious this new variant is,” Meyer said.
Council member Melissa Greene said she found the ban on mask mandates “ludicrous.”
“They’ve mandated that we have to wear seat belts. They’ve mandated that we have to wear motorcycle helmets,” Greene said. “They’ve mandated that we have to have car seats for children. This is a safety issue, too, and the government takes care of the safety of the citizens. I wish the state would allow cities to make their own laws.”
Council member Laura Jo Smole agreed.
“The pandemic never should have been politicized,” Smole said. “It slows our recovery just because we have made it a political issue.”
Council member Terry McClung said he doesn’t want to see the city shut down again. McClung said he is fully vaccinated and won’t wear a mask unless a business or entity has a mask policy. He has mixed feeling about the ban on mask mandates, McClung said.
“We should have more control of our own destiny. However, I believe that local communities can be overly protective,” McClung said. “It’s important that businesses be allowed to have the choice to mask up or not. If a place I want to go asks me to wear a mask, I’m going to respect that.”
Council member Autumn Slane, who runs two local restaurants with her husband, said wearing masks is one way to ensure the safety of staff and patrons.
“A lot of people in town are really taking the responsibility on themselves to make sure their staff is as protected as possible,” Slane said.
Meyer said it’s hypocritical for Republican legislators to pass a ban on mask mandates.
“Republicans are supposed to be all for local rule and the individual making their own choices, and then they slap this on us so we can’t protect ourselves,” Meyer said. “It’s absurd. Now the governor’s even said he regretted signing the bill.”
“The idea with conservatism is that it should be local control,” Smole said. “The state tying the hands of the government has been very frustrating.”
Also in April, Hutchinson signed a measure into law that prevents state and local governments from requiring the COVID-19 vaccine. That meant the employees at Eureka Springs Hospital, owned and operated by a city commission, cannot be required to get the vaccine.
Hospital commission chair Tyson Burden said the hospital’s vaccination rate sat around 50 percent for a few months because of that law. In the meantime, Burden said, Mercy and Washington Regional hospitals mandated that all employees receive the vaccine. That put Eureka Springs Hospital at an immediate market disadvantage, Burden said.
“Patients know they can go to those other hospitals and all the staff will be vaccinated, and yet we’re not allowed to make sure all our staff is vaccinated,” Burden said, adding that the hospital commission has worked hard to improve the hospital since taking ownership in 2020. “That’s not really fair from a market perspective.”
Burden did have some good news. Because of the Delta variant, Burden said, more and more hospital employees have chosen to get vaccinated. Burden said the hospital’s vaccination rate is now around 82 percent, a notable jump from early spring.
“We’ve had a push here over the last few weeks with more staff getting vaccinated. For a while, it wasn’t so good,” hospital CEO Angie Shaw said. “Now we’re moving along nicely. We still have a few who physically can’t get the vaccine because of allergies, and that’s why it’s so important that everyone who can get the vaccine does.”
The hospital hosts weekly vaccine clinics for the community. Shaw said the clinics have really picked up over the past two months, more than doubling to 70 people at any given clinic. Burden said he’s happy to hear that.
“The important thing would be that everyone gets vaccinated in mass to eliminate as much of the virus as possible so we can get past all of the variants,” Burden said. “We would see variants whether there was a vaccine or not, but vaccines can put pressures to eliminate different strains quickly.”
Berry said he fully supports the vaccine and wishes the city could require all employees to get vaccinated. Wearing masks won’t get rid of the virus, Berry said, but vaccines will. Berry encouraged citizens to write their legislators asking for a vaccine mandate at the council’s meeting on Monday.
“They won’t allow cities to do what we believe is best,” Berry said.
Also at the meeting, Berry announced that Drumming in the Park won’t be happening for a while. The popular event, where crowds dance to drumming in Basin Park, was slated to return in the fall. Berry said it’s too risky to have events with such close contact with local cases surging.
Meyer agreed and said everyone should get vaccinated if they can. There’s no getting back to normal if the virus continues to mutate, Meyer said.
“And it will continue to mutate as long as people aren’t getting vaccinated,” Meyer said. “There’s a concerted campaign by certain political movements telling people, ‘They’re trying to take your freedom away!’ ”
Meyer continued, “I remember Baxter Hospital, a few years ago when there was a bad flu epidemic, fired 30 staff members because they would not get the flu vaccine, so there’s precedent for this. You’re protecting your work force. You’re protecting your patients. It’s got nothing to do with freedom.”
McClung and Slane said they aren’t sure about mandating the vaccine.
“Healthcare workers still have personal rights,” McClung said. “There may be legitimate reasons they don’t want it. They may have already had the virus and feel like they don’t need the vaccine. If they’re working in the hospital, they can wear masks.”
“I feel like the vaccination kind of infringes on personal decisions,” Slane said.
Smole said she is pro-vaccine unless someone has a medical reason why they can’t get one. Smole remembered getting vaccinated for polio and measles. Back then, Smole said, everyone did their part to get vaccinated.
“There was never, ever a discussion of it being your right. No one ever thought about saying, ‘No, I don’t want to give my kids a polio vaccine,’ ” Smole said. “I’m old enough that I knew people that contracted polio and saw how devastated everyone was.”
Smole added, “I’m just floored that we have not been able to communicate to younger generations the gift we have to keep our community health.”
As the Delta variant surges, Shaw said, healthcare workers are becoming more fatigued by the minute.
“It’s frustrating, because if people would get the vaccine, maybe we could eradicate the deaths and permanent disabilities that some folks have after coming into contact with COVID-19,” Shaw said. “A lot do completely recover, but the ones they call the long-haulers … they just don’t get over it that easily.”
Shaw wondered if some people refuse to get the vaccine because they are afraid of the side effects. While the vaccine does make some people sick, Shaw said, that is normal and the sickness usually lasts only one or two days. Burden said the community will continue to struggle so long as vaccination rates are stagnant.
“There is a large price for freedom that we’re all having to pay as people have the free choice to get the vaccine,” Burden said. “We have such a high transmission rate right now, and it worries me that another variant will come along that will be even more transmissible than the Delta variant.”
While the city can’t mandate it, Berry urged everyone in the community to get vaccinated if they can.
“The virus will keep on without vaccinations,” Berry said. “I’m a firm proponent of the vaccines. Our numbers are continuing to rise and that’s scary. Until people get vaccinated and we get this virus under control, we will continue to see that.”
Meyer said he’s not optimistic that cases of the virus will decrease.
“You go to Walmart and there’s unmasked people everywhere,” Meyer said. “They say we’re trying to take your freedom away. Yeah, your freedom to get a disease and die!”
Shaw encouraged everyone to take precautions to prevent contracting the Delta variant.
“I’m seeing a lot more illness, a lot more transmission, this time around, sometimes among entire families,” Shaw said. “Healthcare staff is getting burned out and frustrated regarding people not being vaccinated.”
Shaw continued, “There have been some cases where people have been vaccinated and have gotten COVID-19 but their symptoms have been mild. It makes you wonder if they weren’t vaccinated, what would they have gone through? This Delta surge has really taken the wind out of our sails and it was preventable.”