MaskingForAFriend press conference July 17, 2020

HEALTH, CIVIC, BUSINESS AND EDUCATION LEADERS from across Christian County held a press briefing July 17, 2020, at the Ozark Community Center to discuss the launch of the Christian County Pandemic Response Task Force, and to encourage Christian County residents to wear face masks over their noses and mouths in public spaces.

Prior to a public hearing, Ozark Mayor Rick Gardner wanted to hear some limited debate on whether or not face mask use in public places should be required in Ozark.

Discussion on July 28 was limited to six elected aldermen and one appointed official, Christian County Health Department Administrator Karen Peak. At a future meeting, the Ozark Board of Aldermen will open a public hearing to anyone who would like to share their thoughts on whether or not face coverings should be required by law in public places. That hearing was originally thought to be on Aug. 3, but has since been moved back.

Gardner, who has spoken publicly in favor of face mask use as part of a countywide campaign called #MaskingForAFriend, said it is time for Ozark's aldermen to consider action.

"It is my intention to bring forth an ordinance or a mask mandate. It is not because I am not necessarily in favor of one, it is because I think this is something we need to deal with head on," Gardner said.

One Christian County resident was in a hospital and on a ventilator at the time of the meeting. As of July 28 at 8 a.m., the morning of the day the Ozark Board of Aldermen held its discussion, there were 57 people from across southwest Missouri admitted to Springfield hospitals with COVID-19 diagnoses. According to the Springfield-Greene County Health Department, 14 patients were in intensive care for COVID-19, and 12 of those 14 patients required ventilation to help them breathe.

Peak said that at the time of the debate, Christian County had 94 persons under active monitoring because they had tested positive for COVID-19. At the time of the debate, the health department had logged to completion 196 of Christian County's 241 cases announced since March 18.

Since the global pandemic began, Peak said there have been five Christian County residents who became sick enough to require hospitalizations, and that all five required ventilation as part of their treatments. Joyce Gammon, 69, of Highlandville died in June.

"I just would like to see the numbers go down. Unfortunately, they are not. We're reporting 25 and 30 cases at a time," Peak said.

Peak said that as of July 28, there was no FDA-approved drug to treat COVID-19 or a vaccine to immunize persons from contracting the coronavirus. Peak said that social distancing from persons from outside the household, maintaining hand hygiene and using masks in situations where distancing is not possible are the best defenses against the spread of COVID-19.

"We know that face masks don't work 100-percent either, but at this point that's our best option to try, because what we're doing now in just requesting or asking people to do it--it's not working," Peak said.

Ward 2 Alderman Ted Smith said that he and the people in his household use masks in public, but he doesn't want Ozark's city government to put up a mandate that doesn't have a set expiration.

"In general, the American public do not trust government, because we said, 'Shut down for two weeks to not overwhelm the hospitals,' and then we kept moving the goalposts. I'm talking in general, I'm not talking specific Ozark, Christian County and so forth, but just in general, across the nation, we kept moving the goalposts," Smith said.

Smith said he would not support a public masking requirement that didn't contain a clause with some sort of measurable factor that would trigger an end to the mandate written into it. Whether that figure would be a hard number of days or a demonstrated drop in infection rates, or something else, Smith isn't sure.

"Until we get those data points, I am not satisfied," Smith said.

Peak said she was unable to offer Smith such a number.

"A lot of it has to do with all of this being brand new," Peak said.

"That's fair," Smith said. "There has to be a reason for when we can say, 'Enough is enough,' and turn it off."

Survey leans against masks

Smith pointed to the results of a survey that Ozark city employees conducted through the city's website and social media channels, in which 43.2 percent of more than 5,000 respondents voted that they "strongly disagree" with a requirement for masks to be used in indoor public spaces. Another 9.7 percent answered that they generally disagreed with a mask mandate.

"I'm not anti-mask," Smith said. "I don't trust anymore, and I need to be able to trust. For this to affect the 50 percent of the people who are adamantly against this, they have to trust us."

The remaining 44.2 percent of people who took Ozark's mask survey strongly agreed or simply marked "agree" with a public masking requirement in indoor spaces.

"I'm not enjoying wearing my mask either, but I feel it's my responsibility as a community member. Unfortunately, not everybody feels that way," Peak said.

One person who doesn't feel that way is Ward 3 Alderman Jason Shaffer.

"I'm opposed to the mandate. I'm  not a big fan of government trying to govern the behavior of individuals. This isn't criminal behavior, you know, this is free choice, especially when it comes to these type of issues that have restrictions on a person's liberty or opinion," Shaffer said.

Shaffer supports the #MaskingForAFriend campaign as a way to encourage, but not require, face covering use in Ozark.

"I am, by nature, a limited government type of individual. I think a government should be one that educates, advises and recommends, but not one that dictates, demands or controls. Really, what we're talking about is punishing our citizens for not choosing a behavior that we think is most appropriate," Shaffer said.

Shaffer also feels that there are questions about the overall effectiveness that face coverings have in preventing the spread of viruses. He called for Ozark to continue its public educational efforts, but leave mask requirements up to private businesses who ask their patrons to wear masks while they are on that business's property.

"You're going to impose fines or incarceration for not adhering to a mask policy that half the public doesn't agree to," Shaffer said.

Peak argued that the public awareness campaign's effectiveness is limited.

"We had requested that the community step up and wear their face masks, and that's not happening, because our cases have not went down, they have only went up since that time," Peak said.

Health and economics

The Christian County Health Department operates as its own political entity. It is governed by a board of directors which supervises Peak and a staff of 14 additional employees. As the Nixa City Council voted 0-6 to turn down a public face mask requirement, and as the Ozark Board of Aldermen considers a similar bill, the Christian County Health Department has formally endorsed public face mask use, including the idea of making masks mandatory in public places.

"We have to protect ourselves from this virus, not get exposed to it, however that may be," Peak said.

Peak, who has worked as a nurse in the public health sector for more than 25 years, said that the masking issue is both practical for disease mitigation and economic.

"We don't want to deplete our resources. We don't want to continue to destroy our economy, which is happening at this point in time," Peak said. "The state of Missouri is going to continue to put money toward trying to find a way to stop the spread of this virus. That also means that the state programs--they're going to start having people lose their jobs because of that."

Only a small percentage of the people who contract the SARS-CoV-2 virus become sick enough to require hospitalization, and an even smaller percentage die from it, Peak acknowledged. She argued that a positive COVID-19 test result still means that people will need to stay home and self-isolate, which may translate into lost wages for the infected person, lost productivity and revenue for their employer, and the potential for full job loss.

If a close contact exposure occurs in a workplace, meaning that a person considered infectious and symptomatic is within 6 feet of other persons in periods of 15 or more minutes, the Christian County Health Department advises all persons who were exposed to self-quarantine for 14 days, in accordance with guidelines for the Centers for Disease Control. These guidelines, Peak said, have already caused some Christian County businesses to temporarily suspend operations, even though stay-at-home orders have been expired since early June.

Peak argued that a mask requirement can help keep businesses open and help revive a struggling local economy.

"Some of us maybe need a little more push than others just to get on the same page," Peak said. "At this point in time, this is all that we have. It's our last hope, at this point, hopefully to get our economy going in the right direction, and it's just a small sacrifice for each of us."

Support for masks

Ward 2 Alderman Bruce Galloway said he favored a public masking requirement after about two hours of discussion on July 28.

"There is no good reason not to vote for this ordinance. It's not even close," Galloway said. "Nobody here has said that they think the epidemiologists are wrong about this."

Galloway respects the arguments against mask mandates, he said, but believes the city government is called upon to act.

"There's really nothing to this decision. It's pretty darn easy, it just takes courage," Galloway said.

Galloway shared that he studied some information on decision-making from the Spanish Influenza Epidemic of 1918.

"History is going to look back on us, it's going to look back on us and it's going to understand that we have clear choices. There is no policy issue that prevents us from making decisions; we're supposed to make these decisions. Historically, cities made these decisions. There isn't any question about whether masks are effective or not, not really," Galloway said.

Ward 1 Alderman Nathan Posten asked Peak about the political turn that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken.

"Have you ever had an elected official argue with you over any other health department policy?" Posten asked, somewhat rhetorically.

"I haven't had the opportunity of anybody to do that. I guess I don't know where we're going with this question," Peak replied.

"This council hasn't gotten into public health issues a whole lot, and I was just wondering if it was common for elected officials to tell doctors and whatnot how to do their business, or if it was the other way around," Posten said.

Posten said that his thoughts on mask use as a preventative measure against the spread of COVID-19 are fairly simple.

"For me, I think this is a bit of an issue of compassion," Posten said. "If they care about their community, and at some point we have to stop just giving lip service to things that sound good and actually be people of character and stand up for these things. If we are a community of caring individuals, then our law ought to reflect that."

Details for public participation in a future board of aldermen are to be announced soon on the city of Ozark's website and social media platforms. The meeting is likely to take place at the Ozark Community Center, where members of the public can better distance themselves from one another. It’s likely to be the first in-person Ozark Board of Aldermen meeting in more than three months’ time.

The Ozark Board of Aldermen has been meeting over the Zoom teleconferencing platform since April 6, with aldermen and staff members logging in from their homes or City Hall offices to join the meeting virtually.

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