Citizens, business operators and churches in unincorporated Christian County have a new set of COVID-19 guidelines to follow until May 31.
The guidelines were adopted by a 2-1 vote of the Christian County Commission conducted after about 30 minutes of debate on May 1. Eastern District Commissioner Mike Robertson and Presiding Commissioner Ralph Phillips cast the two votes in favor of the COVID-19 prevention orders, while Western District Commissioner Hosea Bilyeu put out the dissenting vote.
Christian County set a limit on gatherings to 20 or fewer people. Daily operations of a business are not considered public gatherings as part of the order.
Despite his dissent, Bilyeu said he agreed with most of the provisions in the order that the commission adopted.
“I will probably vote ‘No,’ but after I vote ‘No,’ I will give 100 percent of my support,” Bilyeu said.
Rural church services were the sticking point for Bilyeu, who wanted to remove language that would limit churches to house no more than 50 percent of their maximum fire code occupancy at any given moment.
“I’m thinking of the rural churches in Christian County. I’m thinking of Chestnutridge Baptist Church that seats about 75 people,” Bilyeu said. “Honestly, I think many of them would be delighted if they had 50 percent of their building space filled up.”
Bilyeu also asked to consider dropping occupancy limitations on funeral homes. Such a policy would have only applied to one funeral home in Christian County that sits outside of Ozark and Nixa’s limits.
The geographic impact of the order is important to Phillips, the presiding commissioner, who stressed that orders in place for Ozark and Nixa will supersede the county commission’s order.
“Our order does not have any authority over the state’s order or the orders issued by our municipalities,” Phillips said. “If you are in the city limits of any municipality, their orders will be enforced, not the county’s.”
There are some minor differences between Christian County’s order and the orders of Ozark and Nixa, just as there are differences between Christian County’s order and an order in Springfield that limits gatherings to no more than 15 persons.
“I think it’s critical to minimize the confusion,” Phillips said. “I’ve not had anybody call me in dispute of what we’re doing with this order right here. I’ve probably spent 12-15 hours a day for the last five days working on this.”
The spirit of the law, Phillips said, is the same. He emphasized the need for continued physical distancing practices in public places. At the Friday morning hearing, he also stressed that businesses work to keep their establishments clean and limit the size of gatherings in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
“I can’t emphasize enough the importance of social distancing and the groups of smaller numbers. We can hope that this will not cause us to have a spike in (COVID-19 cases), but there are still a lot of unknowns,” Philips said.
Businesses providing personal care of any kind are limited to 25 percent or less of their fire code capacity under the Christian County order.
Any businesses engaged in retail sales to the public are limited to 25 percent of the building’s maximum fire code occupancy. If the businesses is 10,000 square feet in size or larger, it is limited to no more than 10 percent of its maximum fire code occupancy.
Restaurants and all other non-retail businesses are limited to 50 percent fire code capacity.
Bilyeu, who works as a pastor in addition to holding office on the county commission, feels like the order treats rural churches scattered through the countryside in the same way it treats larger churches in the middle of Ozark or Nixa. Smaller churches should be treated differently, he said.
“My personal opinion is that I would prefer that we follow the language of the governor’s recommendation,” Bilyeu said. “I think Chestnutridge Baptist Church ought to be different than First Baptist Church in Nixa, and I’m only using those as illustrations, because they’re in different settings and different people and so forth.”
There are still some uncertainties for churches that want to attempt to hold non-traditional services while under the occupancy limits, Bilyeu said.
“We have one church that I know of that would like to be an outdoor service, but not a drive-in service. In other words, they would come and they would sit at certain distances from each other,” Bilyeu said. “I don’t know what they would do if it rains.”
Phillips said that he understood Bilyeu’s stance, but asked that he consider the top priority behind the COVID-19 spread prevention order, which is to protect public health and minimize confusion.
“I think our obligation is to the health of the community as a whole,” Phillips said. “My thinking on this is to be consistent with the municipalities that are mostly impacted.”
About 12 hours before the commission issued its new order, the Christian County Health Department announced the 21st documented case of COVID-19 for Christian County.
According to a statement from the health department, the infected person went into self-quarantine after realizing their possibility for exposure to the virus. “Several days later,” the person began to experience symptoms of COVID-19, and sought help and testing from medical professionals.
As of April 7, the person would have been considered “recovered” by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. However, the results of the test for the COVID-19 patient were not reported to the Christian County Health Department until April 30, “long after a chance to have done the contact tracing.” The health department statement said that there have not been any associated cases of COVID-19 linked to this case that have been documented.
The health department reports that it contacts anyone who has been in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. Health department officials interview the infected person and makes contact with “anyone who needs to be aware.”
The health department and the Christian County Emergency Management Agency have moved away from identifying the cities in which the patients reside, unless they deem it necessary to inform the general public of possible exposures.
At least 14 of Christian County’s 21 coronavirus patients are classified as “recovered” under CDC guidelines.