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Citizens oppose mask mandate at county meeting

Around 30 community members came to the Cape Girardeau County Commission meeting on Monday, July 13, to voice their opposition to the mask mandate that went into effect the same day. The meeting lasted three hours, with the majority of the time being spent on public comments.

Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center staff members were in attendance to answer questions about the emergency order, as were the majority of the health center’s board of trustees. The board of trustees, which is an elected board, voted to approve the order.

Jane Wernsman, director Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center, spoke to those in attendance, saying the order was put in place because COVID-19 cases have doubled the past two weeks in the county.

“I do want to assure everyone that this decision to implement this public health order was one that was not taken lightly. It came after considerable review of data, information, discussion and debate within our agency and within the county briefings that we hold twice weekly.”

“We get it, this isn’t a popular thing,” Presiding Commissioner Clint Tracy said. “Nobody wants to wear a mask. Nobody wants CO-VID either, so we are where we are.”

Tracy added that the public health center has the authority to place this order, and it doesn’t need the Commission’s approval. Wernsman said the state statute that gives them the ability to enact this order also gives the center the authority to ensure food establishments and septic systems are safe in the county.

Several citizens complained that the mandate would hurt their businesses or that it should be their right not to wear a mask. One brought a list of more than 60 businesses in the county that are against the mandate.

Jen Berti of the Jackson Area Chamber of Commerce said 60 percent of respondents to a Chamber survey were against requiring masks in their business. John Mehner from the Cape Chamber said they sent out a similar survey and 55 percent of respondents preferred not to require customers to wear masks.

Bleau Deckerd, superintendent of Nell Holcomb schools and owner of a construction business in Cape Girardeau, said he had subcontractors who will no longer work for him in the county because they have to wear masks. He said he chooses not to wear a mask because he doesn’t think he needs to.

“It’s not the job of the government to tell us what to do,” Deckerd said. “I don’t believe we should have to wear a motorcycle helmet if we choose not to. I don’t believe we should have to wear a seat belt if we choose not to.”

Deckerd also asked when the mandate would be rescinded. Dr. John Russell, the medical director for the public health center, said they plan on rescinding the order when the rate of new cases is falling in the county.

“We are having widespread community transmission,“ Russell said. “The rate of daily cases is going up. The rate of the percentage of the people who are being tested that are testing positive is going up.”

Russell said this order was chosen because it was the best non-pharmaceutical intervention that the center had, short of shutting down the economy. He added that the center was against the county enacting a stay-at-home order on the county level in March because there were no cases in the county at that time.

Danetta Mason, a hairstylist in Cape Girardeau, said she has several clients who told her they would not go to her if she required a mask. “This room would be packed and they would be in the hallway if everyone I knew who wanted to be here could be here,” she said.

Mason added that her son, who has special needs and isn’t able to wear a mask, was told he couldn’t go to school on Monday without wearing a mask. Mason was told by health center staff that the mandate has an exemption for those unable to wear a mask for medical reasons and the health department would help mediate those issues.

Several other citizens, who were dubious of the effectiveness of masks, asked the board to change the order from a mandate to just be strongly suggested. That way they would not have to wear a mask if they did not want to.

Russell responded to the proposed change by saying that “the health department center and board has issued two previous proclamations that were worded ‘strongly recommended.’ The issue has been that it’s not changing behavior.”

Chris Madden, a Navy veteran, said the risk of dying from COVID-19 isn’t high enough to warrant the order. “We all are going to die one day,” Madden said. “And if you die from CO-VID-19, guess what, that was your time to go.” He added that he was fine with nursing homes and hospitals requiring masks, but not for the general public.

Roland Sanders, the chairperson for the public health center board of trustees, said they took this order very seriously. “I think it’s a small thing to ask people to put on a mask if it can save one life,” Sanders said.

Dr. Brenna Keller, an infectious disease physician at Cross Trail Medical Center, spoke in favor of the order, saying it will help stop the spread of COVID-19. She said ICU beds in the area are full and this will help health resources from getting overwhelmed.

“All we are asking is to help us slow the curve for a little bit,” Keller said. “As soon as numbers start to drop, then we can reevaluate.” She added that while deaths have been low in the county, many who have gotten COVID-19 have had long-lasting health issues because of the disease.

Jay Forness covers education, county government and community events for The Cash-Book Journal. He graduated from Southeast Missouri State University with a degree in multimedia journalism and has lived in Jackson for the past four years. He can be reached at cbjedit@socket.net.

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