A mask requirement will be considered by the Joplin City Council at a special meeting Thursday in response to a request made by area health providers as COVID-19 case numbers and deaths tax their capacities.
The proposed ordinance would require the wearing of a cloth face covering over the nose and mouth or face shield inside public buildings and businesses, in public transportation vehicles, and outside when people other than family members are present, and it is not possible to be socially distanced.
The measure defines the face covering as a surgical mask or cloth mask secured with ties or straps around the head or behind the ears or multiple layers of fabric tied around the head. They can be handmade or factory made from a variety of materials, including fleece, cotton, or linen.
There are exceptions to the requirement for people who fall under guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention because of a medical or mental health condition or a developmental disability. Also exempt are people whose religious beliefs prohibit covering the face and for children under 6 years old.
Those who are dining in a bar or restaurant would be allowed to remove the mask while eating and drinking, and the ordinance creates an exception for group or team sports, exercise or other physical activities or during dental or medical appointments where it is not practical.
The mandate would require that businesses and any place where the public is admitted post a sign that masks must be worn inside.
Police or other city officials can be called when there is a need to enforce the use of a mask. Like the city's earlier mask mandate that was in force in parts of July and August, education about the requirement would be provided for a violation. A ticket could be issued for subsequent violations that could carry a fine of up to $50, according to the proposed measure.
School officials would work with the city and its health department to implement safety protocols, including mask usage. Measures are already being taken by Joplin Schools under policies developed in cooperation with health authorities.
Mayor Ryan Stanley, asked Wednesday what feedback he is hearing from residents regarding the possibility of reissuing a mandate, said, "I am hearing a significant amount of public outcry, mostly in favor of a mask ordinance, with some opposed."
Representatives of Freeman Health System, Mercy Hospital, Access Health Care, Community Clinic, Kansas City University Joplin and the Jasper County Health Department sent a letter Monday to cities in Jasper and Newton counties as well as the county commissions asking for action.
They said in the letter that while Joplin’s previous mask requirement was in place from July 8 through Aug. 17, COVID-19 hospitalizations “consistently stayed at a manageable level in the community,” but those numbers have spiked in recent days.
Dr. Robert McNab, head of the COVID-19 units at Freeman Health System, said Wednesday that deaths have increased sevenfold since Joplin's previous requirement expired Aug. 17.
Over the past 14 days, cases in Joplin alone have climbed by 648, up 35% compared with the number two weeks ago. Total active cases in Joplin and the two counties were 1,286 as of Tuesday's counts.
The Jasper County Commission will meet Friday to discuss the request by the health authorities. Commissioner Darieus Adams said Tuesday that he believes that panel will support the request.
Mayors of Carl Junction, Webb City and Carthage issued a united letter Tuesday making a recommendation that people wear face masks but opted not to require them, saying enforcement was difficult.
Newton County officials said if enough city leaders expressed support, the county could be part of a mask order.
Neosho City Manager David Kennedy said the city received the letter Monday, which was the same day as its regular council meeting, and did not include discussion of it during that meeting. The council has not yet given any direction about holding a special meeting to discuss the request, Kennedy said.
Bill Reiboldt, presiding county commissioner, said that the Newton County Commission does not have the authority to make such an order. It would have to come from the county's health department, he said.
Larry Bergner, director of the Newton County Health Department, said while his department would initiate such an order, it might require commissioners' approval. But before going that far, Bergner said he would like to see interest from the county's cities in such an order before starting the process of establishing one.
Bergner said he supports the wearing of masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but is not convinced the county would be able to enforce it.
"I hope that Newton County citizens step up and do the right thing by wearing a mask," Bergner said. "That's certainly been our message. But when you mandate something that can't be enforced, that message loses its effectiveness."
Bergner said he is trusting residents to "step up and protect each other" by wearing masks: "My plea to the public: Let's prove that we don't need a mandate."
But a full public buy-in from Neosho is uncertain. More than 130 people attended a July 9 special meeting of the Neosho City Council, called for the purpose of reviewing and adjusting its COVID-19 emergency order. Many of the people who attended that meeting did not wear masks.
After 20 speakers, including state Rep. Ben Baker and former Mayor Charles Collinsworth, criticized the council's handling of the order and related meetings, and called for some members of the council to resign, the council voted to repeal its COVID-19 emergency order entirely, removing all capacity limits on social gatherings and places of business.