Columbia’s mask ordinance, and potential violations, are by far the biggest issue concerning people who make complaints or other inquiries to the local health department.
Of 161 messages logged from a variety of sources including web submissions, emails and telephone messages, 106 involved how businesses were enforcing the mask ordinance.
In response to a Sunshine Law request, the city provided the Tribune a detailed log of the messages, which include masks not being worn at day care centers, grocery stores, and other businesses.
In some instances, the messages stated, managers and employees said they were told not to confront customers who won’t wear masks, instead encouraging them to do so and providing a mask if needed.
“I was surprised to be told by the cashier and bagger that they can encourage customers to wear masks but can’t make anyone do it,” one message stated about a visit to a Columbia grocery store.
The mask ordinance passed July 10 by the Columbia City Council includes a maximum $10 per violation fine for individuals and $100 per violation fine for businesses. And masks are mandated in the health order in effect until Oct. 6.
“They’re not expected to enforce it, we just want them to make a good faith effort to have masks worn in their stores,” Scott Clardy, assistant director of the Columbia-Boone County Public Health and Human Services Department, wrote in an email.
A high volume of mask complaints came at a time when the county was experiencing triple-digit increases in cases daily, peaking on Sept. 5 with 221 new infections. Daily tallies have declined since then, and last week was the third consecutive week where the daily average of new cases declined, to 49.6 per day.
That is the lowest average daily count since the week before classes began at the University of Missouri.
The county ended the week reporting 60 new cases, bringing the total to 4,589 since the first case was reported in March. There have been nine deaths in the county.
Under the health order for Columbia, face masks must be worn in any situation where a person 10 years old or older is within 6 feet of another person who is not a member of their household.
The order allows exceptions for people engaged in an authorized sporting or exercise activity or people eating and drinking while seated at restaurants. There is an exception for a medical, mental health or disability reason but the person must maintain social distance from anyone not in their household.
That is one reason the health department doesn’t expect heavy-handed enforcement by businesses, Clardy wrote. Instead, signs and providing curbside service for people who don’t want to wear a mask should be used.
“Given that there are exemptions in the mask ordinance, it is possible that some customers meet those exemptions, so we don’t expect business owners to be responsible for enforcing the ordinance,” he wrote.
Some of the messages about businesses reported defiance of the mask ordinance.
“The person on the phone who identified themselves as the manager, told him if he has a problem with the employees not wearing masks he can take his business elsewhere in the future,” the report of one call stated.
There was one message filled with myths about masks, accusing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of spreading false information and blaming China for the virus.
“The science behind masks are the opposite of helping when really healthy people wear them, their immune systems do not get the appropriate oxygen intake they need, wearing masks restrict airflow to the brain causing serious side effects,” the caller stated.
Masks do not harm the immune system or restrict airflow to the brain. On Sept. 16, Robert Redfield, director of the CDC, testified at a Senate subcommittee hearing chaired by Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri that masks “are the most important, powerful, public health tool we have.”
There were several complaints about COVID-19 infections rumored to be at particular businesses, requests to enforce the mask ordinance at protest marches and complaints about student parties and the coronavirus response of the University of Missouri.
“Shut down Mizzou,” one person wrote in a web submission. “Say something against them. Anything. You look like pansies letting these college students run around not wearing masks or social distancing.”
The health department follows up on complaints for businesses it regulates, including restaurants, grocery stores and swimming pools, Clardy wrote. The city’s Office of Neighborhood Services handles the rest.
The response depends on the nature of the complaint and can include a visit from an inspector or a phone call if the complaint isn’t about an immediate issue, he wrote.
“If we have multiple complaints on a facility, we will follow up in person,” he wrote.
The department has taken action that includes shutting down bars, as it did with Nash Vegas and Room 38 when violations were found,
“We talk to the management about the nature of the complaint and make sure they understand what is allowed and not allowed under the mask ordinance and public health order,” Clardy wrote.
Missouri notched several new highs for the pandemic last week as cases, reported deaths, spread and hospitalizations all reached levels not yet seen since COVID-19 reached the state in March.
The 10,498 new cases during the week exceeded the previous high of 10,382, set a week earlier. Missouri now has had 122,014 coronavirus infections confirmed since the first case in early March and 18 consecutive days of 1,000 or more cases.
The Department of Health and Senior Services reported 270 deaths during the week. But 63 of the 69 deaths reported in the daily tally actually occurred earlier in the year, including one from May that had not been included previous, the department stated in a tweet posted Saturday.
“Many of these deaths have already been reported to the public by local jurisdictions, but we did not have the information in our system that triggers our statewide dashboard counts,” the post stated.
Today we are reporting out 69 deaths. As is true with each daily update, this number is not always indicative of deaths that occurred in the past 24 hours. This is based on when information was received and/or entered in our system.
— Mo Health & Sr Srvcs (@HealthyLivingMo) September 26, 2020
Hospitalizations, reported on a three-day delay, reached 1,101 on Wednesday, 33 more than the previous day, which was also a new high.
On average, there was at least one new case in 100 of 117 local health jurisdictions every day last week and only two local jurisdictions, Mercer and Schuyler counties, without at least one new case. Both Mercer and Schuyler counties have fewer than 5,000 residents.