Missouri municipality leaders divided over mask mandates

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O’FALLON, Mo. — Leaders of Missouri’s largest metropolitan areas are now requiring face coverings in response to the surge in confirmed coronavirus cases, but many other places across the state are leaving it up to individuals to decide.

Kansas City and Jackson County began requiring face coverings for residents in public earlier this week, and St. Louis city and county leaders on Wednesday announced similar measures. Some other cities and counties are encouraging, but not requiring masks, including Springfield.

“I wear a mask to protect you” Springfield Mayor Ken McClure said Thursday at a news conference. “You wear a mask to protect me.”

Missouri is among several states seeing big increases in confirmed cases of virus that causes COVID-19 since the economy reopened. Since June 16 the state has had no rules on social distancing, though Republican Gov. Mike Parson has repeatedly urged caution and stressed personal responsibility. Adding to the concern is the upcoming Fourth of July holiday, when many people are expected to gather at parties, festivals and fireworks displays.

State health department Director Randall Williams on Thursday told people to continue using hand sanitizer, social distancing and wearing masks if necessary.

“We want everyone to enjoy the holiday,” Parson said. “But we cannot let our guard down.”

The state health department has reported more than 3,250 newly confirmed cases in the past eight days, including 356 cases and five deaths on Thursday. The state has seen 22,283 confirmed cases, including 1,022 deaths, since the pandemic began. Hospitalizations also are rising.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

Parson said outbreaks in southwest Missouri, St. Louis and Kansas City are driving the increase in cases and made up about 60% of newly reported cases of coronavirus this week.

Despite rising cases, Parson said Missouri “is still in a good place.”

“You cannot only look at the numbers of the new cases alone,” Parson said. “You have to take into account the overall growth rate, the positive rate, the hospitalization, the ICU beds and the ventilators.”

Both he and Williams said the state is improving in many of those areas. They cited an overall drop in hospitalizations and a decrease in the rate of the virus’ spread between people since the virus peaked as encouraging signs.

Meanwhile, leaders of many cities and counties are standing firm against any mask mandate.

“When it comes to masks, I have faith that the citizens of St. Charles County will do the right thing without government coercion,” St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann, a Republican, said in a statement. “I will continue to do everything I can to remind our citizens that, along with the freedom to decide, they have a responsibility to protect the health of others by wearing a mask.”

St. Charles County, near St. Louis, is Missouri’s third-largest county with 402,000 residents. Leaders of another St. Louis-area county, Franklin, also are not requiring face coverings for its 104,000 residents.

Franklin County Presiding Commissioner Tim Brinker, a Republican, said the commission “will continue to support the choice of the individual to keep themselves and others as safe as possible with their lifestyle choices.”

St. Charles County has reported 1,082 confirmed coronavirus cases, the fifth-highest total in the state, and 74 deaths. Franklin County has reported 213 confirmed cases and 18 deaths.

Smaller towns are saying no to mandatory masks, too. The Carthage City Council in southwestern Missouri on Wednesday rejected proposals to combat the spread of the virus, including limiting park gatherings to 10 people or fewer and requiring face coverings.

City leaders in St. Joseph and Columbia are still deciding whether to mandate face coverings.

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