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Cole County government leaders say there is currently no need for the county to enact a mandatory mask order to prevent spread of COVID-19.
Last week, the Columbia City Council passed an ordinance requiring people in the city to use masks. The ordinance, which went into effect Friday, requires those 10 and older to wear a face mask when they might come into contact with someone with whom they don't live. Exemptions exist for people with medical conditions and for some outdoor activities.
The ordinance does not apply to property owned by the state or federal government, and also exempts Boone County buildings including the courthouse.
All three Cole County commissioners said mandating masks in the county is not necessary at this time.
"My answer is a simple no," Cole County Presiding Commissioner Sam Bushman said. "The rate of those testing positive has been at about 1 percent, so a mask ordinance makes no sense at this time."
Bushman said Cole County leaders have left it up to citizens, businesses and churches to do "what they feel is right."
"The Catholic churches still require masks and social distancing during Mass, so we obey their recommendations," he said.
Bushman, who owns Samuel's Tuxedos and Gifts on East High Street, added: "We wear masks in my store when we are close to customers, but only at those times. My wife and I wear our masks when we are out shopping, but that is our choice."
A countywide mask ordinance would require a vote of the County Commission, said Kristi Campbell, county health department director. She said several factors would need to be taken into account before considering a mask ordinance.
"It's not just the number of positive cases that should be considered; we need to look at the entire picture," Campbell said. "The other factors include the positivity rate of the completed tests, the recovery rate, the hospitalization rate and hospital capacity, as well as the public health system's capacity to complete contact tracing."
Campbell said the health department is monitoring all these factors and currently they are "at satisfactory levels."
As of Thursday, Cole County's positivity rate of completed tests was 1.2 percent and the recovery rate was 78 percent. Campbell said the hospitalization rate is not reported to the county health department. As far as the capacity for local hospitals to handle COVID cases, Campbell said, Capital Region Health Center and St. Mary's Hospital are reporting they have plenty of capacity.
"At this time, all preventative health measures are strongly encouraged, along with wearing a mask in situations where social distancing cannot be maintained," Campbell noted.
According to information on the CDC website, health officials recommend wearing a cloth face covering in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain, such as grocery stores, pharmacies and gas stations. Cloth face coverings, the CDC post continued, may slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others. Cloth face coverings provide an extra layer to help prevent the respiratory droplets from traveling in the air and onto other people.
Eastern District Commissioner Jeff Hoelscher said he doesn't believe a mask ordinance is needed and that "individuals should work with their doctor or private physician that knows their private medical conditions and history the best and can make the best decision/recommendation for their circumstances."
He said the commission would rely on "proven scientific data" and the recommendations of health care professionals to make recommendations for the community's health.
"I personally do not wear a mask while in public, except in businesses that require them," Hoeslcher said. "I do practice social distancing and good hygiene."
Western District Commissioner Kris Scheperle said there are many factors to consider when potentially limiting people's choice and personal responsibility.
"I believe that people should consult their physician and do what is best for themselves and their family," Scheperle said. "I maintain social distancing, washing my hands frequently, using hand sanitizer, and protecting myself and my family. I choose not to wear a mask."
Scheperle, too, said the commission would make any decisions based on "real data" and in collaboration with the county Health Department.
If Cole County started to experience changes in any of the measures it tracks regarding COVID-19, Campbell said, the cause would be evaluated to determine if public health interventions were warranted.
"For example, if there was a significant increase in cases due to mass gatherings, a limit on mass gatherings may be warranted, or if travel was an issue we may recommend or mandate a 14-day quarantine after travel," Campbell said. "Our approach would be to evaluate the exposure risk of the situation and address that situation. We want to assure to the best of our ability with the information we have that the public health intervention implemented will have an impact on the issue."
Campbell said a mask ordinance would be complex and present several challenges.
Questions that would need to be answered, she said, include: In what situations should masks be required? Who would enforce the ordinance? Would there be fine for noncompliance? What type of mask is acceptable? If cloth, how many layers does it have to be? How long can a mask be safely worn? Who will make sure individuals are safely wearing their mask? Who will make sure individuals are wearing clean masks and not exposing themselves to other bacteria? What ages are exempt? What medical conditions are exempt? Should businesses be penalized for the actions of their patrons? Where is the personal responsibility? Will there be a long-term impact on the immune system from wearing masks?
She added: "The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control defines exposure risk as having close contact with a symptomatic individual or someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 for 15 minutes or more within 6 feet.
"COVID-19 is spread through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks and the droplets land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. Cloth face coverings are thought to protect other people in case you are infected; they do not protect the wearer."
In her daily activities, Campbell said, she typically practices social distancing and is not within 6 feet of anyone except those in her household for more than 15 minutes.
"Therefore, there is not exposure risk for me or others if I am walking in my neighborhood or talking to someone from across the room," Campbell said. "If I have to be in a situation where I cannot avoid close contact or social distance, like when I donated blood on Monday, I did wear a mask. Again, I evaluate the risk of the activity and either avoid the activity, adjust my behavior or wear a mask. Per CDC guidance, masks are not a substitute for social distancing."