Masks again are required inside all city of Fort Wayne buildings, as of Sept. 7.

Mayor Tom Henry announced that decision at a news conference Sept. 2 at Citizens Square. Henry also spelled out incentives for city employees to become vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus, and said city government has a responsibility to set the example. He presented charts showing dramatic recent increases in COVID-19 cases.

Henry said employees who are fully vaccinated or become fully vaccinated will receive a $200 wellness incentive. Employees can voluntarily provide written proof of vaccination status to the city’s Risk Management Department. He said state law prohibits requiring proof of receiving the vaccine.

Allen County Health Commissioner Dr. Matthew Sutter also spoke, urging unvaccinated residents to become vaccinated as soon as possible. He also urged school boards to require masks in classrooms.

He said the increasing case load is putting a strain on hospitals and other health providers.

The mask requirement will apply regardless of vaccination status. Affected city-owned facilities include Citizens Square, the Fort Wayne Metropolitan Human Relations Commission office, Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation Department office, Parks and Recreation pavilions, community centers, youth centers, the Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory, and Fort Wayne Animal Care and Control’s facility.

Masks became mandatory at city buildings July 27, 2020. Citizens Square was closed to the public from Nov. 23 to Jan. 21. Masks became optional June 1 as pandemic numbers began to stabilize.

Henry, who is vaccinated and recently returned to work after contracting COVID-19, said he is evaluating other possible measures to help ensure more city employees get vaccinated by the Nov. 1 deadline he announced. He could not offer details.

“Getting people vaccinated is our top priority. We have a long road ahead of us, and it doesn’t appear the pandemic will end anytime soon unless we commit ourselves to getting vaccinated, masking up, practicing social distancing, and using good judgment,” Henry said. “I know Fort Wayne can do this. We’re a strong and resilient community with outstanding individuals, families, neighborhoods, and businesses. By working together we’ll be able to turn the corner. Discipline, hard work, and a commitment to following the guidelines and recommendations from the health experts will help get us there.”

He said he hopes that local government’s proactive response will encourage the private sector to look into the possibility of mandating COVID-19 vaccinations.

Signs alerting visitors to the mask-optional policy were posted at entrances to Citizens Square. Most city employees inside were wearing masks. Few visitors were wearing masks. Of 12 members of the media at the news conference, eight were wearing masks by the end of the news conference.

Sutter pointed to three graphs showing COVID case counts in Allen County. “What you can see is that we’re in the midst of a significant surge,” he said. “We continue to see our cases rise, and our daily average case count is now about 250.” He said hospital admissions have shown a corresponding increase and the hospitals are feeling the stress. “The good news is that the hospitals are not yet completely overwhelmed,” he said. “What we’ve seen from the beginning is the people who are filling up our hospitals are largely unvaccinated. Some people who are vaccinated are requiring hospitalization but it’s the exception, not the norm.”

He said the rise in the number of cases in the community also is being driven by the unvaccinated. “That is why vaccination remains such an important piece in our overall mitigation strategy,” Sutter said. “There is no silver bullet to stop the spread of COVID-19 in our community. What we have is a number of different things that working together can control it.”

Sutter said he believes that with vaccines, masking, social distancing and other approaches “we can avoid the complete shutdown we saw in 2020, things that caused economic devastation throughout the country.”

He said case counts are not as high as in the fall of 2020, “but certainly headed in that direction.”

“And I continue to implore school boards to follow the example of Fort Wayne Community Schools and Northwest Allen County Schools in requiring masks in the classroom,” Sutter said.

East Allen County Schools and Southwest Allen County Schools continue under a mask-optional policy.

Henry said America needs to adopt further safeguards to withstand the pandemic.

“In the United States, we have lost over 600,000 of our citizens and statistics are now showing that unless something is done, by the end of the year we could lose another 200,000,” Henry said. “There is no reason why the United States of America is in a position to lose almost a million of our citizens to something that can be prevented.”

He said other measures are being pursued to encourage city employees to be vaccinated. Those 1,800 full-time employees should set an example for the rest of the population, he said. “There is no reason why our employees should not be vaccinated,” he said. “Science is on our side.” The mayor acknowledged exceptions for “a true medical reason or a true religious reason” for not becoming vaccinated.

Sutter said most new COVID cases among those who have not been vaccinated, though there are exceptions. He said studies show that immunity from developing COVID tends to last 90 days; he said that project is subject to further study.

Henry, as announced earlier, developed COVID although he had been vaccinated. He said he understands that his symptoms might have been much worse had he not been vaccinated.

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