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Cities consider requiring face masks as virus cases surge

LIBERTY, Mo. (AP) — As coronavirus cases increase across Missouri, city officials are wrestling with how to slow that rise when many residents are resistant to more government restrictions.

In southwest Missouri, where some counties have become hot spots for the virus since Gov. Mike Parson allowed the state to reopen for business on June 16, the discussion has focused on whether to require citizens to wear face masks.

The state health department reported 19,421 confirmed coronavirus cases as of Thursday, an increase of 553 cases from Wednesday, and a 9.5% increase in the last seven days.

Department of Health and Senior Services Director Randall Williams said 13,000 test results were reported to the state in one batch for June 21 through June 24, so reported test results don’t represent a daily increase.

The Joplin City Council Wednesday voted 5-4 to reject an ordinance that would have required residents to wear masks if they were within 6 feet of someone else in public. The Springfield City Council this week discussed requiring masks, but no official action was taken.

Joplin Mayor Ryan Stanley voted against the proposal but said he had mixed feelings and that he believed people should wear masks. The deciding factor for him was the difficulty of enforcing the ordinance, which placed the onus on people, not businesses, to report violators.

“I envisioned a Saturday where police were getting 200 calls from people all around town reporting someone not wearing a mask,” he said. “How do you divide that work and decide what a true emergency is?”

The ordinance was first proposed last week and drew intense interest, with hundreds of emails and phone calls to city officials and a four-hour meeting before the vote.

Joplin, a city of about 50,000 people, straddles the Newton/Jasper county line. Stanley said the two counties had confirmed 60 cases on June 3, but that total increased to 814 by Wednesday.

“This is definitely a community in crisis,” Stanley said. “It’s very, very concerning where we are. We do not like being a hot spot.”

Williams said Centers for Disease Control and Prevention staff will be in Joplin Thursday and Friday to help track and mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Gov. Mike Parson said it is up to local officials to decide whether to require face masks, and if citizens didn’t like the decision, they could respond during elections.

Council member Anthony Monteleone, who introduced the ordinance and voted for it, said he was concerned because so many Joplin residents are older or have conditions making them susceptible to the virus.

He acknowledged that masks are hot, uncomfortable and embarrassing to wear, but doesn’t see that as a good reason to refuse to use them. The government has mandated such things as seat belts, vaccinations and requiring shirts and shoes in restaurants because those actions are good for the community, he said.

“Convincing people to change their attitude is difficult to do,” he said. “Right now we need to work on behavior and if the attitude changes follow, that’s fine. Let’s just get through this next month and then deal with the deeper issues.”

The council authorized the city to buy masks to hand out free to residents who want them. And it planned to devise an “education and encouragement” campaign with business leaders to encourage their use.

On Tuesday, the Springfield City Council heard from health officials during a discussion about how to react to increasing coronavirus cases in the city, which is about 70 miles east of Joplin.

Springfield officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday, but council member Craig Hosmer said during the meeting that the council should look at some requirement for masks, KSPR reported.

“If we don’t do something and there is a resurgence it’s going to be tough and pull back and close what we’ve already opened,” he said.

Springfield-Greene County reported 257 confirmed cases Thursday, up from 198 on June 1.

Dr. Robert Trotman, of Cox Health, said he had seen more patients in the last two weeks than any other time of the year, leading him to believe masks are an important tool for the public. Even if they stop only 95% of the cases, he said, “Right now that would probably save lives.”

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