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Unmasked: County Council Wastes No Time Voting Down Mask Mandate

Jared Murphy
90.5 WESA

There was nothing veiled about Allegheny County Council’s hostility to a mask mandate proposed by Councilors Liv Bennett and Bethany Hallam Tuesday night. Ten representatives on the 15-member body voted to bypass the usual legislative process and kill the measure in an expedited vote after merely half an hour of discussion. Two councilors, Bennett and DeWitt Walton, voted in favor of the bill: Three others, including Hallam, abstained.

The vote was a notable departure from council’s usual protocol, in which a newly introduced bill is typically referred to a committee with little to no initial discussion. But Councilor Nick Futules asked that the process be suspended and a vote held immediately.

“I don't think it's fair to not have public input on this issue before we vote it up or down,” Hallam protested. “I do not think it's correct to not have experts come and testify to council members prior to us voting this up or down.”

The measure would have required anyone in a gathering of more than 250 people to wear a mask over their nose and mouth or be fined $100. It was set to expire next April, though council could have extended it. But there was clearly little appetite for taking up the bill at all, as became obvious in a half-hour discussion which focused on two main objections.

One was an ideological belief that a government body shouldn’t be dictating individual health decisions. “If you’re concerned about your health, you go and get vaccinated,” said Sam DeMarco, a Republican. “If you’re still concerned, I believe you can wear a mask [but] I just don't believe it is this body's role to tell people out there how they have to live their lives.”

The second concern was that county council didn’t have the ability to craft health regulations on its own. Council solicitor Jack Cambest said he couldn’t assess the bill’s legality without more time, but said he had questions about it. But as several councilors noted, earlier in the meeting council had voted on a paid-sick leave bill that had been delayed for months by County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s objection concerns that only county health officials, not county council, could draft health regulations.

“We just went through a very long process [which reached] the conclusion that this body does not have the ability to legislate on that,” said Tom Duerr, a Democrat. “And I believe we are in the same place with this. … I would be doing a disservice to the people who elected me knowingly sending this to committee, knowingly giving this more time when it's something I believe that we cannot do at the end of the day.”

Even Democrat Bob Palmosina, who had a lengthy battle with COVID-19 alongside his wife, voted no. “We are not doctors. We are not lawyers. We are not health experts,” he said. And while he urged people to be vaccinated, he said, “We also need some normalcy in our life. We need people to get back to work. We need businesses to get back on their feet.”

Hallam, who shortly before the meeting said she would be “shocked” if it didn’t at least move to committee Tuesday, abstained on her own bill so that she could make a brief final speech calling the vote “the most undemocratic way of doing things.”

Botched kickoff

The bill’s prospects appeared poor from the start. Even the unanimous passage of the sick-leave bill did little to improve the mood. Some councilors, in fact, privately expressed irritation that the historic measure’s passage would be marred by a separate bill that some saw as little more than a stunt.

Hallam has also muddied her own message with a weekend social-media post showing herself at the Steelers season opener, unmasked, in Buffalo. At least a half-dozen such images of Hallam among stadium crowds in Pittsburgh and other cities dotted her Twitter account this summer, prompting accusations of hypocrisy.

Hallam told WESA that she would “work to be a better role model” but said “Different places have different rules, just like different roads have different speed limits” and that the mandate would remove that sort of uncertainty. “There are lots of laws I’d like to see enacted that are not. That doesn’t mean I’m doing them now prior to the rules being in place. [And] I think it’s important not just that one person is wearing a mask when they’re going into places, but that everyone is.”

But the measure would almost certainly have faced an uphill climb no matter what the circumstances. Even those who wanted to forward the mandate to a committee instead of killing the bill outright expressed reservations about it.

“In my mind, this ordinance raises more questions than it does present answers” about its legality and scope, said Democrat Paul Klein. “I think that the more responsible approach would have been to have recruited to committee for consideration to try to get some of these questions answered.”

For opponents, things were less ambiguous. Privately some said the mandate presented them with a measure of questionable legality that Fitzgerald — despite saying nothing publicly about the bill — was considered all but certain to veto. And in the meantime, councilors were already hearing from outraged constituents.

“I’m not a physician, I have to listen to what my constituents ask me to do,” said council president Pat Catena after the vote. He said he received over 300 emails about the bill in two days, and “even if a committee meeting had taken place [the public response] has been overwhelmingly no. Like 95 percent in opposition, which is obviously a huge margin.”

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.
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