ELKO – Elko City Council decided to take no action Tuesday against mask mandates and door-to-door vaccine solicitations after listening to public comments and considering attorney opinions.
The council left the door open, however, on door-to-door solicitations by informally agreeing to look at an ordinance that the Elko County Board of Commissioners recently instructed staff to draft.
On the mask mandate, City Attorney David Stanton said Tuesday the city doesn’t have the authority to buck the state restrictions, and he said the threat that Nevada’s governor could remove the council for failing to comply is “not scare tactics” but is in state statutes.
He said “outright defiance of an emergency directive is not, in my opinion, either meaningful or productive. Rather, such a decision could potentially expose the City and its officers and employees to liability without the immunity protections that ordinarily apply to governmental functions, including decisions pertaining to COVID-19 management.”
Elko City Council also received an opinion from the state insurance pool that said voting in favor of actions against Gov. Steve Sisolak’s mask mandate would be risky.
Attorney Rebecca Bruch wrote that “I highly recommend and advise the City to comply with all of the Governor’s Directives, including Directive 047. Failure to comply creates very real and substantial liability for the City and its council members in their official and personal capacities.”
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Directive 047 calls for face coverings in indoor settings in counties with high COVID-19 transmissions, including Elko County.
Councilwoman Mandy Simons said she hates masks, but it is not within the “city’s purview” to go against Sisolak’s mandate. “I really can’t do this.”
Stanton said a city ordinance restricting door-to-door solicitations would require the city to show significant government interest in protecting the people, and come up against constitutional issues that include free speech.
He said everyone has the right not to talk to anyone who comes to the door, or they can put up signs against solicitation, but “what we’re talking about is city government stepping in.”
Councilman Chip Stone said it is “nobody’s business whether we have had the vaccine or not,” and he later stated that he agreed the city should see what the county does. “Hopefully, we can support what the county does.”
Simons voiced concerns that vaccine solicitations would violate HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act designed to protect patient privacy.
Councilman Clair Morris said people may not want to be asked if they are vaccinated, but he still likes to donate money to causes when kids come to the door, so he said he didn’t believe the city needed an ordinance against solicitors.
“Just say no and shut the door,” he said, later adding that he didn’t want to see the city in jeopardy of a lawsuit that would be costly.
The city’s newest councilman, Giovanni Puccinelli, said he agreed with Morris that he liked kids being able to come to the door, and he was against an ordinance that opposes all solicitation.
Stanton also said he could look at modifying the city’s trespass code regarding no-solicitation signs, but that issue was not part of the agenda, so he would have to look at that only if he got a nod from the council.
Lee Hoffman, a former city councilman, said he asked for the door-to-door proposal because he has been trying to get the council, county, and Elko County School Board to synchronize their efforts “because of concerns about where we are headed as a country.
“The privacy issue is really the biggest concern. It is in the interest of the city to protect citizens as best you can. It’s a matter of pushing back wherever we can,” Hoffman said.
Vern Hatch, who is in the alternative health business, said door-to-door visits to ask about whether someone is vaccinated is an intrusion of privacy and against HIPAA, and people should not have to be burdened by the question of what to do if someone comes to their door.
“The Nazi brownshirts have returned,” he said.
Debbie Pawelek said the federal government cannot control the conduct of private citizens in their own homes.
Mayor Reece Keener said the council has “heard quite a few different perspectives. Maybe we should see what the county commission comes up with and if we can support it.”
Roughly 15 people spoke at the Tuesday meeting on either the door-to-door question or mask mandates, and some talked on both agenda questions.
Elko City Council has already let the governor know the city’s thoughts on COVID-19 restrictions.
The council agreed in July to send a letter to Sisolak supporting the Elko County School District’s stance on COVID-19 and telling the governor that the city opposes vaccine passports, door-to-door surveys, and vaccinations at schools without parental consent.
This time, the council looked at the question on door-to-door surveys as a potential ordinance.
Regarding mask mandates, Elko City Manager Curtis Calder said the city follows the Elko County plan for COVID-19, and that plan leaves mask decisions to the governor. City employees are complying.
Keener said the city’s compliance is in regard to employees and city buildings, but “we don’t have the bandwidth” to enforce the mask mandate throughout Elko because of a lack of resources.
Puccinelli said while he also doesn’t like masks, “it is a little hard to go against” the legal opinions.
Hoffman said the mask mandate question is “very different” from the door-to-door visits, but he said he wanted the question on the agenda because there is a lot of interest from the public, and he wanted the issue discussed “in the interest of transparent government.”
Also in public comment, Jeanne Hansen of Nevada Families for Freedom said she understands the council’s dilemma but would “encourage benign neglect” of mask enforcement.
New resident Jack Scott told the council that “you have no wiggle room” on the mask mandate.
Keener said “our hands are tied. I’m particularly concerned about the financial implications for the city…. Yes, overreach has really gone too far, but I can’t go along with putting the city at risk.”
Council members agreed and decided against taking any action.
The mayor and members of the council were not wearing masks during the meeting, but Elko City Clerk Kelly Wooldridge provided Keener’s explanation Wednesday. He said they wear masks when walking into the building and when speaking with anyone in the crowd before and after the meeting, but during the meeting they remove the masks because they feel it is important people see their faces and understand what they are saying.
City staff members at the meeting wore masks and removed them only when they were speaking.
Councilwoman Mandy Simons said she hates masks, but it is not within the “city’s purview” to go against Gov. Steve Sisolak’s mandate.