Mayor vetos mask mandate after council votes 6-4 for adoption

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Carthage Mayor Dan Rife, using an authority that has only been wielded a handful of times in the history of Charter government in Carthage, vetoed a mask mandate that was approved by a 6-4 vote by the Carthage City Council on Wednesday.

The vote came after two days of public and council comments and discussion over a mandate to require citizens to wear masks in public because of the rising spread of the novel coronavirus and its associated illness, COVID-19, in Jasper County and the country.

The bill, Council Bill 20-54, was the second attempt in Carthage since the pandemic began in February to enact a mask mandate in the city. The first failed in June on a 5-5 tie vote when Rife cast the deciding vote against the measure.

Carthage City Attorney Nate Dally said the Mayor can veto a bill by refusing to sign it and filing his objections in writing. The bill would come back for reconsideration at the next council meeting, but proponents would need seven votes to override Rife’s veto.

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The board shows how each council member voted on the mask mandate. John Hacker / Carthage News Online

This bill would have required everyone over 6 years old to wear masks when in public spaces and when they couldn’t social distance themselves.

It included exceptions for eating and drinking and for people with health problems that might make it hard to breathe through a mask, or people exercising.

The bill specifically prioritized enforcement by educating people found to be in violation of the mask mandate and informing individuals and businesses of the mandate and the consequences before police handed down citations.

If violations persist, the council bill called for punishment by fines of up to $500 for individuals and possible suspension or revocation of a certificate of occupancy or a business license for businesses in violation of the mask requirement.

Rife’s argument

Rife said he favors people wearing masks, but he opposes a mandate from the city council requiring them.

He’s said in the past that a mask mandate would be incredibly difficult to enforce and he doesn’t think its government’s place to force citizens to wear masks.

“I’m very much in favor of masks and very much in favor of people wearing masks and being safety conscious. I’m not in favor of a mandate to do so,” Rife said after Wednesday’s meeting. “I think it’s an overstep, I don’t think the city needs to be the ones who are mandating that masks be worn. We requested it, it’s up to the businesses to make their own rules for their own business and go from there. I don’t believe it’s the city’s place to be doing that.”

Rife said he was pleased with the orderliness of Wednesday’s meeting and the discussion on both sides of the issue.

“I couldn’t be more pleased with how the meeting went,” Rife said. “I respect everyone on the council, everyone is doing what they feel is best for the residents of Carthage.”

Council discussion

Carthage City Council members spent several minutes on Tuesday discussing their positions on a mask mandate. Much of the Council discussion on Wednesday was about the changes and amendments made to the bill.

Council Member Raymond West talked about his childhood and how the community dealt with outbreaks of polio, smallpox, mumps and other contagious diseases.

“I am by far the oldest person in here I’m sure,” West said. “I grew up with smallpox, I grew up with tuberculosis a lot more than there is now, Polio, measles, which was 20 to 30 percent fatal in the 1950s, and mumps, which could leave you sterile for the rest of your life if it didn’t kill you. And we didn’t even discuss these types of things (a mask mandate) during that period, and we lived with it.

“I can’t support putting our police force in the position of having to go into Lowes to write tickets when they’ve got better things to do. I have a mask and I wear it in public when I need to because I am at risk, but I’m not going to require other people by force of law.”

Council Member Craig Diggs said he personally wears masks in public, but he was opposed to the mandate.

“This is an opportunity for us to very seriously take a look at what is our responsibility,” Diggs said. “I do not personally believe that it is our responsibility to force mandates on the community. I do personally wear one, and I think that education and respect for others is the direction we need to go. I want to thank Mayor Rife for writing the proclamation he wrote and for speaking to the press in the manner he did. I think that’s a very good first step, but I don’t think that’s all that we can do. We have to take our opportunity to speak to the community in a way that they understand.”

Council Member Ceri Otero said she was in favor of the mask mandate but opposed to fighting about the mandate.

“We’ve all got friends and loved ones in both camps,” Otero said. “Over the last several months, the folks who don’t want a mask mandate have been very thoroughly represented. It hasn’t served us real well, small businesses, as you all have mentioned, have indeed suffered. So I think it’s time to try another way and I’m here on behalf of the folks who do want to try the mask mandate. I so see the flaws in it, I see it won’t perfectly solve everything. There’s a whole lot that still has to be done. All the personal responsibility that people have mentioned tonight, still will be a giant component even if the mask mandate is passed.”

Council Member Seth Thompson said he favored a mask mandate but was uncomfortable with the penalties in the original bill.

On Wednesday, Thompson and other council members stripped nearly all the penalties from the bill with amendments approved by the Council before voting on the final bill.

“I’m pro mask, but I believe compromise is the way toward progress and I’m disappointed that the how-to in this ordinance is a swing further away from the middle since our last proposal,” Thompson said. “I can’t accept anything that threatens the licensure of our local businesses and as the city liaison to the Chamber and the CVB, I can tell you we’re in no position to send a negative message to our local small businesses. I want masks because I know they reduce the spread.”

Hospital perspective

On Tuesday, Mercy Carthage Hospital Administrator Scott Watson spoke to the council in favor of the mandate, saying “Your hospital is full.”

“Since Labor Day, both hospitals in Springfield and both hospitals in Joplin, where we normally transfer, have been on forced open,” Watson said. “Which means that all four of them have told the state we can’t do anymore, we can’t take anymore, don’t bring people and ambulances to our Emergency Department, but when both hospitals are closed or diverted, the state makes you open both of them.

“I need to tell you how drastic that is. I’ve only been in this business since 2008, but I’ve never seen anything remotely shadowing the amount of despair that is in front of us. In other words if something non-covid-related were to occur, we’re just going to have to do the best we can because there’s nowhere else to go.”

Watson said the statistics he sees tell him the hospitals in Joplin and Carthage will have to find 50 or 60 more beds for patients by the second week in December.

“I don’t know where they’re going to come from, I don’t know where we’re going to put them,” Watson said. “We’ll find a place, it may be a hallway, but I can tell you we are ordering equipment as fast as we can to try to keep people alive on machines that breathe for them. And we’ll do the best we can, and whether or not you believe that a masking ordinance will plateau or stem the tide is completely your decision after you read plausible facts from people who know.”

Citizens comments

Comments and discussion about the mask mandate were spread out over two meetings — the regular scheduled meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 24, and a special meeting called specifically to discuss the mandate on Wednesday, Nov. 25.

Rife said the special meeting had to be called because the ordinance wasn’t proposed in time to include it on the regular council agenda with enough public notice.

A dozen citizens commented over those two days, six each day, and the comments were divided fairly evenly.

Six spoke in favor of the mandate, five spoke against it and one person, Carthage Chamber President Mark Elliff, spoke against a specific provision in the bill that added revocation of a business license as a potential punishment for violating the mask mandate.

Elliff said that section targets small businesses unfairly and should be removed. Council members eventually removed the section as they amended the mandate.

“Section 7 of this bill is not necessary as Section 6 already addresses the penalty for not complying with the ordinance,” Elliff said. “It is not business friendly in the current situation we are in and sends that message not only to Carthage businesses but also any new business that may be considering Carthage.

“Retail chains, franchises, as well as our local industries, already have policies in place regarding masks for people entering their businesses. This ordinance, if passed as presented, specifically targets the local and smaller businesses that are struggling now while operating on only 70 percent or less of their normal business revenue.”

Ed Hardesty, who with his wife, Kara and others, founded Mother Road Coffee and currently own and operate Village Square Boutique on the Carthage Square, also spoke against the penalties in the bill.

“It’s a very emotional issue, people that want to wear it yes, people that don’t want to wear it yes,” Hardesty said. “As far as affecting business, being a business owner, the way my wife and my mother-in-law run it, they have masks available. My wife just went through cancer treatment so she’s an at-risk category. She has the mask available. If a customer comes in and is wearing a mask and wants to wear it, she puts hers on. If a customer comes in and asks if they have to wear one, she’ll say no, you don’t you’re perfectly fine.

“Is it going to require an enforcement officer at the door to allow or disallow someone to come in if they’re not wearing a mask so you can follow the letter of the law? This is unattainable, it’s an unenforceable action and it seems like a silly waste of time to include at least that section in the bill.”

Carthage resident Shawn McGrew spoke in favor of the mandate.

“I am in favor of a mask mandate to protect our community and support the limited and strained regional health care resources we have available,” McGrew said. “Without the council implementing a mask mandate, you willingly jeopardize human life.”

He called a letter, issued last week by the mayors of Carthage, Webb City and Carl Junction, asking that residents voluntarily wear masks while out in public, “dangerous and lacking at best.”

“We can absolutely predict that a mask mandate will change the curve,” McGrew said. “It’s called science. I appreciate that Carthage, Carl Junction and Webb City are in this together. But none of these cities have a tertiary care center. The community that does, Joplin, enacted a mask mandate. It would be ideal if people could be responsible and showed compassion for others, thus far this has not been the case. And the data supports the continued spread of COVID-19 in our community. Without a mask mandate, we are adding fuel to a fire that is already raging out of control.”

Jason Comer, a rural Carthage resident, said at Tuesday’s meeting that he has family members who have had COVID-19 and family members in the health care industry, but he opposes the mandate because he felt it would hurt small businesses.

“We’ve made it through the COVID, we did the isolation, we received the letters that state that they can lock you up if you don’t isolate yourself,” Comer said. “I firmly believe that small businesses will take a hit if you mandate a mask ordinance. I think it’s about the people educating themselves, having empathy for one another. I wore a mask in here not because I want to wear a mask, I wore a mask because I respect you guys’ opinions. I respect the fact that you don’t want to get sick and if I can do something that’s going to help with the situation.”

Latayzia Harris, rural Carthage, said she supported a mask mandate and fears for the lives of her grandparents and great-grandmother in the face of the pandemic.

“I just want you guys to think about this ordinance as not something that’s going to hurt small businesses,” Harris said. “We need to worry more about the lives than monetary losses. I have seen so many people struggle, I struggle every day and it’s not fair to put money over lives, and I don’t think that’s the American way. I hope that I’m not offending anyone but I love this town, and I really want to see it succeed.”