A proposed ordinance that would have mandated protective masks be worn in Joplin businesses and other public places failed Wednesday night.

While there was council concern to find try to find a way to stem rising cases, several council members expressed concern about forcing people to comply.

When council member Diane Reid Adams made a motion to pass the ordinance, it failed by a 5-4 vote.

Those in favor, in addition to Reid Adams, were Anthony Monteleone, Christina Williams and Keenan Cortez. Those who voted against it were Mayor Ryan Stanley, Gary Shaw, Phil Stinnett, Doug Lawson and Chuck Copple.

The council did approve a motion by Monteleone to have the city manager work on plans for the city to buy masks that could be distributed free to residents who want to use them. That motion passed 9-0.

Stanley said he wants to move forward, too, with a public education campaign on precautions that could help reduce the transmission of COVID-19.

"I think we have more people in this community who don't want to wear masks than do," and just passing the ordinance is not going to mean that people will automatically comply, Stanley said.

"I just don't think Joplin is going embrace this because we pass this ordinance," he said, because there have not been many deaths. He said said the ordinance would be hard to enforce.

The council received a variety of input at the special meeting as well as calls, emails and social media messages before the meeting that Stanley described as "inundating."

Fifteen residents spoke at the meeting, and 13 were against the ordinance. 

Toby Teeter, president of the Joplin Area of Chamber of Commerce, said an email poll of businesses showed 57% did not favor the ordinance and 43% did.

Council member Christina Williams said 85% of the comments she received before the meeting favored the mandate and she would hope all residents would feel responsible for each other.

Joplin Police Chief Sloan Rowland said enforcement will be difficult. The department has to prioritize calls for service, meaning that violations of the mask ordinance would have to be dealt with as officers had time. By then, an offender might have already left the premises.

Some council members said the maximum fine for a violation of $250 was too steep.

The health director, Dan Pekarek, presented numbers on both Joplin and regional cases.

"Right now, we don't know if we've reached a peak and (whether) it will go down or not," he said.

On Wednesday, Joplin had 59 active virus cases, and those people are in isolation. The department previously had 41 who tested positive who are now out of isolation.

"We haven't had any deaths in Joplin at this time," though the Jasper County Health Department announced its first death on Wednesday. There have been two deaths in Newton County and one in McDonald County.

Joplin currently has 107 active quarantine cases, who are contacts that are not showing symptoms of having the illness, Pekarek said.

About the mask ordinance, Pekarek said he has been saying for months that masks are a piece of the prevention equation.

"What we are most interested in is flattening that curve and keeping the number of cases so that the percentage of individuals who are sick enough to be hospitalized doesn't overrun the capacity of the hospitals.

"I'm going to tell you I'm supportive of masks because that's a piece of this puzzle. Masks should be a component, whether we do it voluntarily or by ordinance. Science is split, but I have to go by what I hear and the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), and the CDC says that masks are recommended.''

Dr. Rob McNab, of Freeman Hospital, who is chief of the hospital's COVID-19 services, said the hospital had few patients before early June, but since then, hospitalizations are growing. He said the unit has been enlarged three times in the past three weeks and now has 33 beds, which usually are full.

He said health officials are trying to find ways to keep infections under control, but he did not recommend a lockdown or stay-at-home order be imposed again.

At the current rate, though, "We will run out of resources if this continues," McNab said.

Stinnett questioned whether the largest numbers of cases are outside Joplin, chiefly in meat processing plants in Carthage and Noel.

Because the virus seems to be more easily transmitted when people are in close quarters, "Should we be trying to figure out how we could work with employers to make sure they are using masks? Maybe we are not tackling the issue at the point we should be tackling it," Stinnett said.

Copple said he would like to see the city give out masks regardless of whether the ordinance passed.

City Manager Nick Edwards said that if that is the desire of council for the city to provide masks, there is a provider and money is available to buy them.

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