NEOSHO, Mo. — Seeking answers to questions from residents, the Neosho City Council rejected an ordinance that would have established a stay-at-home order to limit the spread of COVID-19.

With a 5-0 vote, the council rejected the ordinance during a special meeting Monday night. But the ordinance could come back soon, members said, based on local infection rates and answers to questions raised by the community.

Council member and Mayor Pro Tem Carmin Allen said more than 300 emails were submitted in response to the proposed ordinance, many of those asking questions. Allen said that those questions, ranging from legal issues to business operations, will be investigated and used to refine the ordinance for discussion during a future meeting.

"We had a lot of questions come in, and we're going to answer them," Allen said after the meeting. "There is a lot to answer about some big concerns, and I can't answer those questions, but others can."

The order council members discussed would have taken effect Wednesday. It was intended to limit actions within the city limits to essential activities and businesses.

According to documentation on the city’s website, the order would have allowed individuals to leave their home only for certain activities defined as essential, with all individuals using social distancing. Businesses defined as nonessential would halt all in-person operations, while allowing operations that can be done either remotely or with a drop-off or drive-thru service.

Under the order, residents would have been allowed to do things related to health and safety, such as visiting a doctor, getting groceries, working their jobs at essential businesses, checking on friends or family or engaging in physical activity such as running, biking or hiking.

Allen said the ordinance was taken directly from an order enacted earlier this month by Greene County. Allen said answers to questions will be used to refine the order for bringing up during a future meeting. 

During Monday night's meeting, members said they were trying to find a balance between protecting the community and protecting the city's economy. Serving as mayor in place of Mayor William Doubek, who has been receiving medical treatment for conditions not related to COVID-19, Allen submitted the ordinance as a place to start the conversation. 

In statements at the beginning of the meeting, council member Jon Stephens said he would vote against it as written. Referring to five Newton County residents who have tested positive for the illness, Stephens said the numbers didn't justify risking businesses. 

"I've spent time reading and doing research, and in my personal opinion, the data is not there to back up closing the town," Stephens said. "If we do something of this nature to hurt (business owners), they won't come back."

Council member Angela Thomas said that many businesses are already closing down because of the pandemic — including her own. Thomas said that such an order would not work unless everyone in the city participated, noting that even though the city had previously declared a state of emergency and encouraged social distancing, crowds were still turning out to large retail stores.

"People won't comply unless the big-box stores comply," Thomas said. "This is not going to work unless everyone is on board."

Discussion grew tense between Stephens and Allen during the meeting. Stephens asked for a yes-or-no vote on the measure instead of tabling it, because of the nature of the issue. However, Allen said that he hoped for a motion to table the measure so that questions could be answered and the ordinance could be adjusted. With the unanimous rejection and direction to research questions raised by residents, both council members ended up getting what they wanted. 

Before Monday's meeting, Lauri Lyerla, director of the Neosho Area Chamber of Commerce, said businesses have already responded to the pandemic by either closing or adjusting their operations. She said her staff worked to get news of Monday's meeting, and a request for feedback from Doubek, to chamber members. 

"I know no one has been through this before," she said. "It's untraveled, and no one knows the right answer. Whether it goes into play or not, each business is doing what it can to protect employees and customers, and we're helping our members learn ways they can integrate things into their business so they can still do business."

While the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms in most adults, older adults and people with existing health problems can develop more severe illness, including pneumonia. According to the World Health Organization, people with the more severe illness may require three to six weeks for recovery.

Of the five cases reported by Newton County, four are out-of-state travelers who stayed in isolation upon their return home, said Larry Bergner, director of the Newton County Health Department.

That has been fortunate for controlling the spread so far, he said. But reports of busy stores across the city Saturday concerned him. 

"Anything we can do to get the public to stay at home is essential, so I applaud the city for looking at this," Bergner said before the meeting. "I'm hearing a lot of folks tell me that if you go to any large store on a Saturday, the parking lot is full. I realize people need to get groceries, but I would caution everybody not to go out unless you absolutely have to. Keep that social distancing, because it's proven to be the best way of fighting it."

Joe Hadsall is the digital editor for The Joplin Globe. He has been the editor of the former Nixa News-Enterprise and has worked for the Christian County Headliner News and 417 Magazine.

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