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Columbia bars must close early amid spike in virus cases

By Jim Salter The Associated Press

O'FALLON, Mo. (AP) — With nearly 300 University of Missouri students infected with the coronavirus and cases spiking in the surrounding community, Columbia's city health director on Friday announced a new order that limits crowd sizes and requires bars to close early.

Stephanie Browning, who leads the health department for Columbia and Boone County, said at a news conference that new cases of COVID-19 “are increasing exponentially, it feels like.” She cited a county test positivity rate of 44.6% last week as evidence of “widespread community transmission.”

By comparison, the seven-day rolling positivity rate for the U.S. decreased over the past two weeks, from 7.3% on Aug. 13 to 5.9% on Aug. 27, according to data from The COVID Tracking Project.

Effective Friday, public gatherings must be limited to no more than 20 people, with some exceptions. Bars and restaurants must cut off alcohol sales at 9 p.m. and close no later than 10 p.m.

“I’m certain they’re worried about the economic impact of this,” Browning said. “We all are.”

Businesses found in violation could face prosecution. Browning said the order was deemed necessary because people gathering at bars are failing to adhere to previous guidance issued by the health department.

“What we’re seeing in our violations is they’re coming late at night,” Browning said. “Big groups gathering. They’re not wearing their masks, they’re not social distancing.”

University of Missouri System President and MU Chancellor Mun Choi said none of the students who have tested positive were hospitalized. He said the university is not currently considering going to online-only classes, a move made recently by the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

“Going forward, we’re going to continue to enforce our policies on the campus and off-campus and ensure that we continue to keep this community safe,” Choi said.

The university announced Thursday that Family Weekend, scheduled for Sept. 25-27, was canceled. The Homecoming parade scheduled for Oct. 17 also was called off.

Boone County has seen a big spike in new confirmed cases since classes resumed earlier this month. The county has reported nearly 500 new infections since Aug. 21. Browning said it’s not just students -- cases are rising among permanent residents of Columbia, too.

Missouri’s health department reported 1,512 new confirmed virus cases on Thursday, bringing the total since the pandemic began to 79,574. The state also announced one more death. Overall, 1,450 Missourians have died from COVID-19.

Missouri has the nation’s 10th highest per capita rate of infection, 18.33 per 100,000 residents, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

The state has no mask mandate, but several local jurisdictions have their own, including Boone County. Jefferson County, near St. Louis, joined the list Thursday, when the county health board voted 3-2 to require people to wear masks inside businesses and other places where social distancing cannot be maintained.

St. Louis city and county enacted mask requirements last month.