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Cole County and Jefferson City officials have recently promoted an advisory to curb the spread of the coronavirus including social distancing and wearing masks.

However, the decision to wear a mask is still often left to the individual, and a mask mandate in response to the pandemic may be unlikely to come from the Jefferson City Council at this time.

Although council members support efforts to encourage mask wearing and social distancing, the majority of the council members reached by the News Tribune last week do not currently support creating a citywide mask mandate.

Masks are currently required inside City Hall and during attendance at all in-person city meetings, although many meetings are being held virtually. Masks are also required to ride the city's JeffTran transit service.

Private businesses may also require masks, but masks are not required citywide.

Ward 5 Councilman Mark Schreiber said while a mask ordinance may be necessary to increase mask wearing, he doesn't see how the city would enforce it.

"I think that businesses and individuals have to have enough sense to realize we're in a very serious situation, so everybody ought to do their part and wear a mask," Schreiber said. "I don't see where an edict from the city or the county or the state, how we're able to make it mandatory."

Ward 1 Councilman Hank Vogt agreed a mask ordinance would be "very difficult, if not impossible" to enforce.

Ward 2 Councilman Mike Lester said he would support a mask mandate if it came before the council, although he doesn't think it will.

"I think we should do whatever we can to reduce the spread of the virus," Lester said. "I know there's people that aren't going to wear masks no matter what, but just making it more formal may help."

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Ward 4 Councilman Ron Fitzwater said he is not in favor of a mandatory mask ordinance but instead encouraging people to voluntarily wear them and stay physically distanced.

Ward 4 Councilman Carlos Graham said he encourages residents to wear a mask but does not currently support a mask ordinance and also mentioned challenges with enforcement.

"It would be so hard to actually enforce that because you have so many people who can't wear a mask, and then how do you determine if they are the ones who can't wear a mask?" Graham said. "I think trying to make it mandatory would be difficult to do."

Graham compared wearing a mask to putting on a seat belt in a vehicle — it may be uncomfortable for some, but it should be done for people's safety. He also said it is unfortunate mask wearing has become a political issue.

"This virus doesn't care what your political party is," he said. "It doesn't care what color you are. So I hope people see the mask wearing and don't think of it as a political side. It has nothing to do with politics."

Ward 5 Councilman Jon Hensley said he does not currently support a mask mandate, citing advice from the county and medical community.

"At this point, guidance and response we've gotten from the county health department and medical community has not been supportive of such a mandate," Hensley said. "I think it would be difficult for us to impose and enforce one without their support."

During the council's meeting Nov. 16, Cole County Health Department Director Kristi Campbell and Dr. Lenora Adams, regional vice president of medical affairs for SSM Health, gave the council an update on COVID-19 in the area.

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Campbell gave an overview of the health department's new approach to limiting spread of the coronavirus through contract tracing, and Adams updated the council on the effect the virus is having on area hospitals.

Adams said the virus has created difficulties for medical staff including staffing shortages, overwhelming numbers of patients and even post-traumatic stress disorder.

Adams echoed the county's recommendations of avoiding close contact with others and continuing to wear a mask when physical distancing isn't possible.

Hensley asked Adams if the county and city advisories are enough or if mandates may work better.

"I think it's impossible to enforce a mandatory rule," Adams said. "I know there are people in the community who would like to see mask mandates and enforcement, but I don't know that that's really striking the right note."

Adams recommended instead working to encourage people to follow the suggestions through strategies like sharing compelling stories of those who have had COVID-19.

Overall, the council members said the city should continue to promote education relating to the virus and supporting advisories like the most recent one released by the county and city.

"I think we all have a responsibility to continue to get the word out for people to do these things that we know will stop it," Schreiber said.

Vogt said the city should continue to be serious about prevention messaging and being a conduit of medical information from professionals.

During Monday's meeting, Adams asked the council members where they see gaps in education relating to the virus the health community could help address.

Ward 3 Councilman Ken Hussey said during the meeting that he sees a number of misconceptions among the public relating to asymptomatic spread, the ability to get the virus after having had it and the differences in severity of symptoms each person experiences.

Hensley said it seems many people view the outcome of the virus as death or full recovery.

"You hear a lot of folks that seem to think death resulting from this is the only meaningful metric," Hensley said. "Whereas there is a much larger population of people who get it who are having a much broader experience with different health challenges."

The council as a whole has chosen to lead by example by having either virtual meetings or distanced, masked, in-person meetings.

The News Tribune was unable to reach council members David Kemna, Laura Ward, Erin Wiseman and Ken Hussey last week to discuss their views on a potential mask ordinance.

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