NEOSHO, Mo. — Responding to what a doctor called a "canary in the coal mine" moment, the Neosho City Council on Tuesday announced possible adjustments to its coronavirus-related emergency order that expand some limitations but crack down on violations, and further call for event organizers to have a prevention plan in place.

Because of the way Neosho's emergency ordinance is written, the changes could go into effect as early as Friday or as late as next Tuesday.

"With some of the things we have seen, people aren't self-distancing," Mayor Carmin Allen said. "We have to get this under control and let people know we are serious."

During a special meeting Tuesday called to examine the city's emergency order, the council by consensus called for the following changes:

• Retail businesses, including stores and restaurants, may host no more than 50% of their capacity. Businesses must keep count, and that number must be posted at the front of the business.

• A limit of people in public gatherings was expanded from 10 to 15 people, but a renewed emphasis on breaking up larger groups was included.

• As part of the process for hosting a public event within city limits, event organizers must provide a disease prevention plan that has been reviewed by the Newton County Health Department.

• The city will increase the amount of COVID-19 prevention messages in signs and other forms of public advertising.

Neosho's emergency ordinance, passed on March 21, gives the city manager authority to set such limits. City Manager David Kennedy and City Attorney Steven Hays are reviewing the changes. Hays said after the meeting that if an ordinance needs to be passed to enact the council's consensus, it will likely be brought up on an emergency basis during the council's next meeting, scheduled for Tuesday.

Cases increasing

Tuesday's meeting started with updates from health officials representing the county, hospitals, health centers and other organizations. Larry Bergner, director of the Newton County Health Department, said that as of Tuesday evening, Newton County had reported 492 positive cases, and about 75% of those patients resided in Neosho.

"There certainly is a spike going on," Bergner said. "The good news is that a majority of our cases are having only mild symptoms, and many are asymptomatic."

Bergner said an increase in testing has helped to find asymptomatic cases, but it's also showing that a majority of them have been in the 18-to-44 age group.

Officials from Access Family Care, Ozarks Community Hospital and Freeman Health System answered questions about their efforts to fight COVID-19 in Neosho and across the region.

Dr. Rob McNab, director of Freeman's COVID unit, said the testing that Freeman has done has not increased significantly, but the number of positive tests had.

The number of patients has also increased in his unit, he said. When he spoke to the Joplin City Council last week about a possible mask ordinance, he said that the unit was approaching capacity, but still had some room. Every day since that meeting, the unit has been at capacity, McNab said.

"That's our 'canary in the coal mine' moment," McNab said. "Anything we can do to stop the spread is the right conversation to be having."

He said that as hospitals expand their COVID units, it runs the risk of reducing resources to treat other conditions such as cancer or heart disease.

Dr. Erik Martin, an emergency physician who is affiliated with Freeman and Mercy Hospital, said that as area hospitals fill up, they will have to turn to other areas such as Springfield to treat patients. He and other health officials said prevention tactics such as wearing masks, social distancing and hand washing are critical for helping to control the spread of the disease.

Concerns over gatherings

Council members expressed concern over the amount of large gatherings they had seen across the city, including crowds centered around athletic competitions at city parks and gatherings of teens and young adults at area restaurants.

Concerns were also raised about the carnival portion of the upcoming Newton County Fair, set for July 8-11.

Yet council members were reluctant to outright ban those events or pass ordinances requiring prevention tactics. Allen opened the meeting saying that a mask ordinance similar to what Joplin considered would not be discussed.

Council member Tom Workman said that while the city should cancel its upcoming Neosho Fall Festival, he did not think the city should shut down other group events.

"We need to be careful about banning everything," Workman said. "We can recommend not to have an event, or that it needs to have safety precautions in place. But we shouldn't jump out and say we don't want that event in town."

Council member Tyler DeWitt recommended more awareness of the disease and how to prevent it through the city's billboards and other signs.

"I feel like awareness is a good approach — like an election, with signs everywhere," DeWitt said. "If we have signs placed strategically around town, we can make people better aware of the disease."

Follow Digital Editor Joe Hadsall on Twitter at @JoeHadsall.

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.