A letter has been released and proclamations will be passed, but the towns and counties around Joplin do not seem to be ready to follow the bigger city’s lead and adopt a mask mandate during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Carthage Mayor Dan Rife, who along with Webb City Mayor Lynn Ragsdale and Carl Junction Mayor Mark Powers, issued a letter encouraging people to wear masks in public in their cities last week, said the Carthage City Council will likely talk about a mask ordinance at its regular meeting at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, but no action can be taken at this time.

“It’s on the agenda for discussion, but we don’t have an ordinance ready,” Rife said. “We don’t have a council bill request from anyone, and we’ve got varying opinions on what the right way to go is from that angle."

Darieus Adams, Jasper County Western District commissioner, said the three commissioners may discuss the topic at their regular meeting at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the Jasper County Courthouse, but he doesn’t know what will come out of the discussion.

Ragsdale said he planned to ask his Webb City officials for a vote of affirmation on a proclamation that roughly mirrors the letter the mayors sent out last week, but he doesn’t expect any discussion about a mandate at the meeting.

Powers said his council affirmed a similar proclamation last Tuesday, but no one is talking about a mask mandate now.

Background

The Joplin City Council reimposed a city ordinance requiring residents 6 or older to wear masks in public through Feb. 28, 2021, unless the council revises the ordinance later.

The 6-3 vote in favor of the mandate came days after leaders of Freeman Health System, Mercy Hospital Joplin, Access Family Care, the Community Clinic, Landmark Hospital, Kansas City University-Joplin and the Jasper County Health Department sent letters to cities and county governments in Jasper and Newton counties asking that they pass a mandate to help reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus and keep COVID-19 hospitalizations at a manageable level.

The number of people infected with the coronavirus has been spiking in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, and the hospitals say the number of people seeking care is straining their capacity.

This is the second time Joplin has passed a mask mandate. In their letter to the cities and counties, the hospitals said the previous mandate, from July 8 to Aug. 17, kept hospitalizations at a manageable level.

The Carthage City Council considered a mask mandate at a July 1 meeting, but the panel deadlocked at 5-5, and Rife cast the deciding vote against a mandate.

Other communities discussed mandates, but only Joplin has implemented one.

Various objections

“Basically everyone I talk to around here, the citizens, don’t want it,” Powers said. “We all kind of believe in personal responsibility. We definitely encourage people to follow all the CDC guidelines and everything.”

“I would simply say that Webb City has to do what Webb City has to do, Carthage has to do what is best for Carthage, Carl Junction what’s best for Carl Junction,” Ragsdale added. “With that in mind, Joplin should do what’s best for Joplin."

Most community leaders said they felt a mask ordinance was unenforceable in their communities.

“It’s a completely unenforceable ordinance that will only bring division among the citizens, and we have no desire to pass unenforceable ordinances about anything,” Ragsdale said. “We are in complete agreement with the governor’s statement that we are not anti-mask, but we’re anti-ordinance.

“People seem to be angry about it from both sides,” Rife said. “I’m not picking sides here, but to try to get a small police department, which has to be the ones to enforce it, to enforce something like this is a tough thing to ask folks to do."

Powers said Carl Junction is different from Joplin and the other communities in that it doesn’t have many places where people gather, such as shops or restaurants.

County level

Larry Bergner, director of the Newton County Health Department in Neosho, said he would support mask ordinances if other cities in the county showed an interest, but as of Monday, none had.

In the past he has been in favor of mask orders but skeptical about authorities' ability to enforce them. Bergner said he encouraged people to wear masks before any sort of order was made, however.

"The message is still how we need to social distance and wear masks when we can't," Bergner said. "I'm hopeful and optimistic that citizens, when they see numbers rising, do the right thing and protect each other."

No discussions of a mask order have been placed on agendas for upcoming meetings of the Neosho City Council, said City Manager David Kennedy. But that could change before the next meeting, scheduled for Dec. 1.

The city received the joint letter from hospitals and health agencies on the day of its last meeting, Nov. 17, and was unable to place it on the agenda in time for that meeting according to Missouri law.

In Jasper County, Adams said county leaders seem inclined to follow Missouri Gov. Mike Parson’s lead and encourage mask wearing without enacting any enforceable county ordinance.

“In my view, there’s no question a mask makes a difference,” Adams said. “But at the end of the day, how do I enforce that?"

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