NEOSHO, Mo. — After more than two hours of contentious public input and interruptions, the Neosho City Council rejected ordinances that would have established mandatory mask-wearing and occupancy limits.
Anticipating a crowd, the council's meeting was held Tuesday night in the Civic Center.
Without making any of their own statements, council members let the two ordinances die. A motion made by council member Angela Thomas died after not receiving a second, and an ordinance for occupancy limits died for lack of motion.
According to ordinance drafts posted to the city's website:
• The mask ordinance requires facial coverings to be worn while inside public buildings or businesses. It allows exceptions for medical and religious reasons, as well as for children and for restaurant or bar patrons who are eating or drinking.
• The occupancy ordinance bars businesses and organizations open to the public from allowing more than 50% of their standard occupancy limits. It allows exceptions for schools, day care centers and churches.
This marked the second time the council has held a public meeting in the Civic Center. In July, the council rescinded a state of emergency order and removed existing occupancy limits.
More than 20 people spoke to the council during the visitors' business section of the meeting, including some regular speakers at Joplin City Council meetings. The group of speakers included two former mayors, including state Rep. Ben Baker.
"These draconian mandates are a violation of civil rights, and have created an additional health crisis," Baker said. We must have a balanced approach. ... Life has risks. There is more to life than just avoiding death. In America we still have the freedom to take risks.
Other people who spoke against the two ordinances cited government encroachment and how the occupancy limit had the potential to harm Neosho businesses.
"Please don't pass this for our little town, one week before Christmas," said Dudley Zerbel during the meeting.
Several of the speakers suggested that Joplin's mask ordinance and pressure from the city's two largest hospitals led to Neosho considering the limits again. Others said the council should trust members of the public to use disease prevention strategies.
Some criticized the council bringing up the matter again, saying that Mayor Carmin Allen promised to not bring up the matter again after the July decision.
"How can we as people come together for the good of all if we can't rely on the honesty of our fellow man?" Charles Akers said. "Even though you say churches are exempt at this time, how can we as citizens believe you won't add churches to the list at another time?"
Allen said after the failed motions that the matter was brought up again after hundreds of people requested it. Additionally in November, officials with Joplin hospitals and health agencies asked local governments for a mask order to help prevent a surge of patients.
One person spoke in favor of the mask order. Tim Jones said the one statistic that means the most to him was the death of his father, who died of the disease at 87, he said. During the meeting he talked about how, while wearing a mask at grocery stores, three times he was laughed at and coughed on by people not wearing masks.
"Common sense says we should protect ourselves," Jones said. "We shouldn't have to have a mandate. But if it takes a mandate, it takes a mandate. ... I think if people were doing what was right, we wouldn't be here tonight."
About 120 people attended the meeting, many of them not wearing masks. One brought a sign that said, "Don't tread on me," and another brought an American flag.
The meeting included some theatrics from audience members.
The visitors' business section was interrupted by a person who started speaking loudly from the Civic Center's balcony against the ordinances. After speaking for about two minutes, he sat down, and was allowed to remain in the room.
As another person spoke with questions for council members and council members answered, another attendee approached the bench and presented a Bible for council members to swear upon.
Also during the visitors' section, member William Doubek asked for veterans to stand and be recognized, then asked for people associated with churches to stand. He then asked for people in those two groups who disapproved of the ordinances to remain standing — almost all of them did.
In addition, three letters from residents were read aloud — all in favor of the ordinances.
Audience members also interrupted speakers with hospitals and health organizations who were asked to present information about COVID-19 treatment to the council. Speakers with Mercy Hospital Joplin, Freeman Health System and Access Family Care spoke in favor of the ordinances.
Rob McNab, director of the COVID-19 unit at Freeman Health System, was continually interrupted by members of the audience, and several members turned their backs to him by turning their chairs around. He managed to answer some questions from audience members before the noise grew too much.
Stephen Douglas, of Access Family Care, said his clinic asked for the ordinance to help manage a high load of patients.
"We are here to ask for assistance," Douglas said. "Our clinics are being overrun, and we're experiencing a lot of emotional stresses on our professionals."
As of Dec. 15, the Newton County reported 415 patients currently in isolation, with 25 of those patients hospitalized. Since the pandemic began, the county has reported 3,553 total COVID-19 patients with 57 deaths.