Recapping Joplin City Council’s meeting for declined mask ordinance

Mayor Stanley encourages residents to wear masks, social distance

JOPLIN, Mo. – Divided is one way to describe the Joplin City Council meeting on Wednesday night.

After four hours of debate and conversation with several community members, doctors and experts, the Joplin City Council voted down a proposed mask ordinance in a split decision.

“It was very polarizing. In my six years on council, I’ve never been that inundated with people trying to reach out to me to share their thoughts,” says Joplin Mayor Ryan Stanley.

During the community engagement portion of the meeting, 15 people shared their thoughts on the proposed mandate. 11 people were against the ordinance, including a pharmacist, physician and epidemiologist, an attorney, business owners, and residents. 2 people spoke on behalf of the ordinance, both of them being physicians, one of which lives in Nixa.

City Clerk Barbara Gollhofer also read emails that were submitted before the meeting, which included opinions from 10 people who were against the ordinance, and 4 people who were for it.

Joplin Chamber of Commerce President Toby Teeter provided the results of an email survey that the chamber conducted, which included more than 2000 chamber members. They received around responses, with 57 percent of them being against the ordinance.

“I do feel like we did good civic work yesterday,” says Stanley. “Some people were gonna be frustrated, but that’s how divided this was. And I’m not proud of the vote, cause I’m just one vote. But I am proud of how we conducted the conversation.”

Teeter also spoke about the impact that doing nothing could have on the economy, especially if the number of people who get COVID-19 continues to increase between now and when school starts in August.

“We’ve gotta do better as a community,” said Teeter. “If Missouri Southern goes to remote learning for a semester, we’re talking about potentially thousands of students who won’t return to Joplin in August.

Dr. Rob McNab, head of the COVID unit at Freeman Hospital, also discussed what has happened at the hospital over the last three weeks as the area has seen a sharp increase in cases. He said that, as of June 24th, they had 22 patients in their COVID unit receiving care. He also said that Freeman has had to expand their isolation unit to include around 33 beds — a 23 bed increase from the number they had at the beginning of the pandemic.

“I can’t continue to triple the volume of the hospital for this one disease,” McNab told the council. “Heart attacks haven’t gone away. Strokes haven’t gone down. Pneumonia’s not gone.”

During our interview with Stanley, KOAM asked him what actions might be taken if the hospital system became overrun.

“I will tell you that city council will always look to whatever we need to do for public safety to try to fight this from the best way possible,” says Stanley. “So if our hospitals start to get overrun, if our death rate starts to increase, I would expect us to become much more restrictive. Whether it be then moving forward with a face mask ordinance, or with moving backward in our reopening plan. But at the end of the day, I hope we don’t get into that position.”

Joplin Health Department Director Dan Pakerek also gave an update on numbers for within Joplin. He told the council that, as of June 24th, the city was up to 100 cases — with 59 of them being in isolation. There are currently two Joplin residents who are hospitalized. Testing in Jasper and Newton County is up to 140 tests a day, close to the testing capacity. And the rate of positive tests has increased as well — to the point that Joplin is close to a 17 percent positivity rate. That’s compared to a 1.2 percent positivity rate in May.

“I’m the guy that’s been here telling you for months now [that] masks are a piece of that equation of what we can do to keep our number down,” Pakerek said during the meeting. “What we are most interested in from a public health standpoint is flattening that curve. To keep the number of cases at any one point in time to a level so that the percentage of individuals that will get sick enough to end up in the hospital doesn’t overwhelm the hospitals.”

Pekarek also said that a large number of the cases they’ve seen recently have been coming from things like family gatherings, and stressed the importance of residents observing social distancing and staying home if they’re sick.

“Even if this were in place, it probably wouldn’t be affecting that. It wouldn’t be affecting that big chunk of what we’re seeing lately. So, that’s kind of why I also wanted to get back to the social distancing. Only those kind of things are gonna help us in that environment,” said Pakerek.

One of the biggest points of concern for council people and residents alike had to do with enforcement.

Joplin Police Chief Sloan Rowland said that enforcement would look a lot like it did during the stay at home order. Where the police wouldn’t patrol but instead would rely on members of the community to file complaints if they saw that someone was in public without a mask. But that would increase their call volumes, and they would have to prioritize going to other calls before responding to a call about the ordinance.

“I wonder about the overwhelming nature if it gets to a certain point. How many calls we’re gonna be receiving. What’s gonna be our ability to respond,” said Rowland.

“Why would we move forward with an ordinance that we’re gonna struggle to enforce?” says Stanley. “I’d rather change behavior now with education and with encouragement, and not with legislation. And I’m hoping that that will make a difference.”

But other members of the city council wanted to make sure it was in place — citing the sharp increase in cases.

“When I hear the chamber saying we have to do something… when I hear our medical professionals saying we could be in the hole here in a matter of days, that is the position I’m going to be taking,” said Councilman Anthoney Monteleone during the meeting.

Stanley wants residents to understand that the and other members of the council didn’t vote against the ordinance because they don’t believe masks are effective. In fact, he hopes that residents will get serious about wearing masks and following other health guidelines.

“We need to be really recommitted and re-affirmed in our desire to get this out of our community. Because it is here.”