Independence mulls mask mandate

By Mike Genet
The Examiner USA TODAY NETWORK

As the metro area continues to grapple with the latest COVID-19 surge, Independence Mayor Eileen Weir technically doesn’t need the City Council’s approval to issue a public health order with a mask mandate.  

But for practical purposes, she hopes to have their initial backing.  

Weir plans to ask the council to vote Monday on a resolution for the mayor and health director to issue a 30-day mask mandate for ages 5 and older in indoor public spaces and outdoor gatherings of greater than 100 people. 

She does not appear to have unanimous support. Two council members, including the mayor, told The Examiner they support a mandate, two are opposed and three have not publicly committed. It would take four votes to reverse a mandate, and it would take four votes to maintain a mandate beyond 30 days. 

“Let the council vote whether they want to put it in, and if they don’t, there’s no reason for me to exercise that right,” Weir said of her reason for the resolution. “If it’s not supported by the council, there’s no reason to put it in.” 

The city’s Advisory Board of Health, which consists of citizens mostly from various medical fields, unanimously endorsed the resolution Wednesday. Darryl Nelson, chief medical officer at Centerpoint Medical Center and a member of the health board, said the current situation at his hospital is unlike any he’s seen in a 35-year career, with capacity issues due to shrinking bed availability and staff shortages. 

Masks aren’t perfect, he acknowledged, but the medical fields know they’ve helped blunt COVID spikes before. 

“We can do something now, to curb the immediate spread, and the best way we know is to mask,” Nelson said. “Many of us tried to warn in the spring that we were letting up too soon. We missed some opportunities in the past, but the bottom line is it will have an impact, and something is going to be better than nothing.” 

Jackson County and Kansas City have mask mandates in place as the metro area tries to combat the COVID-19 resurgence fueled by the highly contagious Delta variant. Independence briefly required masks just in city facilities until it was rescinded last week due to what some called “confusion,” as well as possibly being overturned by the City Council 

The City Charter gives Mayor Weir the power to mandate masks, but a new state law says such orders require a vote from the local governing body to continue past 30 days. That governing body can also vote to terminate a public health order before that point. While Weir rescinded the city facility mask requirement, she still highly encouraged people to wear masks in public spaces and encouraged private businesses to require masks. 

Council Member Dan Hobart said he would support a mask mandate, particularly out of concern for the shrinking number of available beds in area hospitals, as the number unvaccinated COVID patients could potentially compromise care for other emergency cases. 

“Without getting deep into the mask or no-mask thing, I’m more concerned about the bed space,” Hobart said. 

Council Members Mike Steinmeyer and Brice Stewart both say it shouldn’t be government’s place to mandate something like that.  

“Every private business in the city has the ability to enforce a mask requirement upon entering, and then it is simply up to the consumer if they want to go there or not,” Stewart said. “I personally do not have a problem wearing a mask when asked to by a business; however that is my choice.”  

Council Member Mike Huff said he’s feeling the same on the issue as citizens who have contacted him – about 50/50. 

“People have the right to wear the mask, and people also have the right to not wear it, but it’s very real,” Huff said, referring to the danger of COVID-19. “If you don’t, you know what the risk is. I don’t want to step on constitutional rights, but it’s very real.” 

Council Member Karen DeLuccie, said Thursday morning she had not yet had a chance to listen to the health board meeting. Council Member John Perkins also said he would be listening to that meeting and was still mulling the issue. 

“I’m trying to digest the info, to make the best decision that helps the community out,” Perkins said, adding that the chance for council to review a mandate – should it pass – after 30 days is helpful.  

Although Centerpoint, like other area hospitals, isn’t filling up solely with COVID-19 patients, Nelson said it is to the point of declining transfers, and like other chief medical officers in the metro area he worries about care for non-COVID patients being compromised. 

Further testing by the state of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the area, he said, shows the recent new cases are almost exclusively of the delta Variant, and the average age of COVID patients he sees is “plummeting.” 

While area hospitals generally did well during previous surges due to public health measures and then a near absence of annual seasonal flu cases last winter, the current COVID surge with vaccines available is draining many hospital workers, Nelson said. 

“They’re exhausted from work and then debating with others,” he said. “I’m worried about being able to have a sustainable workforce.”