Nixa votes to limit gatherings during COVID-19 pandemic

FROM LEFT, Nixa City Councilman Scott Perryman, Mayor Brian Steele and City Councilman Aron Peterson listen during an emergency meeting of the Nixa City Council held in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic at Nixa City Hall March 18, 2020.

The Ozark Board of Aldermen and the Nixa City Council each held emergency meetings Wednesday night. At each meeting, the respective six-member city legislatures for the two cities granted executive authority to their mayors to limit the number of persons at public and private gatherings.

For the moment, the limit is 50 persons in Nixa, and 10 persons in Ozark, effective at 8 p.m. March 18. The Nixa number could shrink down as low as 10 people, as Ozark Mayor Rick Gardner and Nixa Mayor Brian Steele both wait to see what the Christian County Commission, the Christian County Health Department, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, and/or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and prevention recommend as the response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic continues.

As of 8 p.m. Wednesday, Steele had not issued an order. However, on March 17, the Christian County Commission issued an order prohibiting gatherings of 50 or more people. The city government ordinances enacted Wednesday night give the mayors of Nixa and Ozark authority to reduce the number from 50 to a number as low as 10, without the vote of their respective city council or board of aldermen.

Both Nixa and Ozark are under localized states of emergency until 11:59 p.m. April 1.

In Nixa

Nixa Mayor Brian Steele said he was prepared on March 18 to limit all gatherings in Nixa to no more than 10 persons, mirroring what has been done by executive order in Springfield. However, Steele waited and did not sign any such order. He is waiting for the outcome of a Christian County Commission meeting on March 19.

“The county hasn’t yet done that, so we decided to hold off on that. That’s why we’re making it more open-ended, so if (Thursday), the county does decide to go to 10, or if we just decide on our own that that’s the best course of action, we can do that,” Steele said.

Steele could use his authority granted in the bill to cap meetings at 10 persons without another vote of the Nixa City Council.

Nixa’s ordinance, like Ozark’s, gives exemptions for large gatherings at schools, daycare facilities and some places of employment such as grocers and retailers.

Nixa City Administrator Jimmy Liles notes an exception to the law for, “any gatherings where the organizer can demonstrate to the satisfaction of the mayor, after consultation with the appropriate city, county and state officials, that the sufficient mitigation plans for infectious disease are in place.”

Nixa City Attorney Tim Ricker explained to the city council that the emergency meeting and the 5-0 vote on the ordinance Wednesday night was a departure from the Nixa City Council’s normal practice of waiting at least two weeks between a bill’s introduction and a bill’s final passage.

“This is an emergency bill, so it’s being introduced and read on the same day, so to the extent, it’s a little bit of a different procedural process,” Ricker said.

Ricker then answered a question about churches.

“Churches are not included as an exempt public gathering, under the definition of ‘public gathering,’ so they would fall under either they can’t be closed by a court of competent jurisdiction—so a court would order that they can’t be closed—or there would have to be satisfaction that mitigation plans are in place,” Ricker said. “It does not specifically exempt churches.”

The ordinance in Nixa, like the one in neighboring Ozark and the order in Christian County, is most likely to impact restaurants, bars, coffee shops and other places where people gather in public.

In Ozark

Ozark Police Chief Justin Arnold and the police officers he supervises are in charge of enforcing the order to limit gatherings in Ozark. Arnold does not believe it will catch anyone by surprise in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“From what I have seen from around town, I have a feeling that most of our businesses expect this to be forthcoming,” Arnold said. “I can’t guarantee that everyone will be notified of this new ordinance, however I think a good swath of our community will based on social media and stuff like that.”

Arnold said that the Ozark police will not ticket event and gathering organizers straight away if they are found to violate the ordinance for crowds in the midst of a pandemic. It will be repeat offenders who are ticketed and prosecuted.

In Ozark, aldermen asked why the city needed an emergency meeting, and why the ordinance needed to be enacted immediately. City attorney Amanda Callaway explained that Ozark was staying consistent with surrounding local governments.

“Most of these declarations have been immediate from that point forward in other municipalities, including Christian County,” Callaway said.

“I also think it shows the gravity,” Alderman Nathan Posten said. “It shows it’s serious. It’s serious enough to pass it, it’s serious enough to go into effect.”

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