Saying the borough is in the midst of a COVID-19 pandemic, Kutztown Borough Council adopted an aggressive ordinance at a special meeting Friday that requires wearing face coverings, limits the size of gatherings and imposes stiff fines on homeowners, renters and businesses that violate its provisions.
After a two-hour meeting in which the ordinance was criticized as overreaching and an invasion of privacy, council adopted it on a 4-2 vote.
Council members Amanda Raudenbush and Zebulon Hull cast the dissenting votes.
Kutztown is believed to be the first Berks County municipality to enact an ordinance in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Council’s action comes amid growing concern over the spread of COVID-19 among students at Kutztown University, located just off the southwest edge of the borough in Maxatawny Township.
The university reported late Friday afternoon there have been 186 cases since Aug. 24 when students returned. Of them, 99 were off-campus students.
Matt Santos, a university spokesman, attributed the spike in students testing positive for the coronavirus to off-campus partying over the Labor Day weekend.
The ordinance applies only to the borough of Kutztown, not the university.
The six-page ordinance says the borough has seen a “sharp and aggressive spread” of COVID-19, and states the only method presently available to slow the rate of infection is to limit exposure.
While it comes amid an escalation of COVID-19 cases at Kutztown University, the sweeping ordinance also places restrictions on businesses and private homes in the borough.
“In all housing types, gatherings of more than 10 unrelated persons shall be prohibited,” it states. “Any exceptions require prior approval through submission of a gathering registration application to the borough.”
Even if an exception is granted, it limits the gathering to 25 people, provided a COVID-19 mitigation plan is submitted with the application.
Gatherings in borough parks and municipal property are limited to 100 people.
The ordinance, which codifies state Department of Health measures already in place, is effective immediately. It will remain in effect until emergency declarations by the state and the borough are lifted on Jan. 31, 2021, or earlier.
During public discussion, the ordinance came under repeated questioning as to whether it is advisable, enforceable or constitutional.
Javier Colon strongly opposed the ordinance as an invasion of privacy.
“I don’t want to see vigilantes in the street enforcing it,” he said. “I don’t want the police knocking on my door when I’m having a family gathering.”
Keith Miller, who identified himself as a Kutztown firefighter, called it a violation of civil liberties.
“I will have anybody over to my house whenever I want and how many I want,” he said. “That’s my right.”
Miller threatened to sue the borough if he is cited for violating the ordinance.
Nick Timpe, who said he has lost family members to COVID-19, characterized the ordinance as overreaching.
He questioned whether the borough has the authority to enact the ordinance under state law.
Keith Mooney, solicitor, suggested the borough has the authority under emergency managing provisions.
Whether it would stand a constitutional challenge, Mooney said, is difficult to determine.
“There have been no cases in the last 100 years or so that I’m aware of,” he said. “I don’t know of any test case.”
Responding to a question about birthday parties and Thanksgiving dinners, Mooney said the restrictions on family gatherings do not apply to family members, only unrelated people.
Several people appealed to council to postpone a decision and make amendments based on issues raised by opponents.
Greg Kaufinger told council he has a petition with more than 200 people expressing opposition to the ordinance.
“Please listen to the people,” he said, “and put the brakes on this thing.”
Support for ordinance
Dennis Krumanocker supported the ordinance as a fix to a short-term problem.
“I don’t see it as overreaching,” he said. “It gives the police jurisdiction.”
Lisa Ladd-Kidder made a plea in support of the ordinance.
“This thing is real, this is serious,” she said. “It affects not only students. Everyone is capable of spreading it.”
Former Mayor Sandy Green, liaison between the borough and university, lent support.
“Be a part of the solution,” she said, “instead of part of the problem.”
In calling for a vote on the ordinance, council President Kevin Snyder expressed “serious reservations” about government overreach.
“But as elected officials we have an obligation to protect the health, safety and welfare of our residents,” said Snyder, who voted for the ordinance. “Though it's not perfect, at least it says that Kutztown is serious about stopping the spread of this virus.”
He added, “We just can’t sit back and wait for it to get worse.”
Raudenbush, who chairs the public safety committee, expressed bitterness that the issue was being decided at the local level.
“This should have been handled at the state and federal levels,” said Raudenbush, who voted no.
The preamble to the ordinance says COVID-19 poses a risk of incapacitation and death. Its measures are intended to reduce infection rates, minimize risk to public health and ease pressure on medical facilities.
The ordinance, which lists exceptions to its provisions, is available on the borough website.