(SAVANNAH, Mo.) Andrew County commissioners co-signed a proclamation about COVID-19 safety measures and guidance including encouraging mask use in September, but they are not ready to adopt a mask mandate yet.
“Currently, we are talking with the health department, the city of Savannah, and the city of Savannah to get on a united front to see where everybody wants to be on it,” said Gary Baumann, county commissioner for the western district.
But no action has been taken and two of the commissioners, Baumann and Presiding Commissioner Bob Caldwell said they are not ready to enact a mask mandate. Fritz Hegeman, the eastern district commissioner was out of the office Monday morning at the time of the interview.
The Andrew County Commission, along with the Savannah City Council, the Country Club Village Council, and the Andrew County Health Department issued a letter encouraging people to wash their hands, wear masks in public, and follow CDC guidelines and protocols on Sept. 21. The proclamation states the group adopted the proclamation because the infection rate had increased in the community.
At the time, Andrew County had 573 total cases of coronavirus and 4 deaths. In the two months since the county health department reported an additional 526 cases and 9 deaths.
Earlier this month, it was this crushing increase in caseload that Andrew Hoffman, the county health administrator, said forced his team to refocus its efforts to only the most essential services like WIC and COVID-19 investigations. The health department closed its doors for customer service on Nov. 12.
In the ten days that followed, Savannah Public Schools shifted to virtual learning until after the holiday and adopted a district-wide mask mandate to help curb the spread.
Caldwell said because so many businesses and schools require masks it may not be necessary for the county to enact its own order.
“The schools are doing a mandate now and a lot of the businesses are so I feel like that covers a lot right there and right out there in rural Andrew County, I don’t know that we are ready to do that at this point. I’m not saying we won’t but at least not right now,” Caldwell said.
Last week, the health department issued a public exposure notice related to a Savannah bar.
Savannah Mayor Kirk Lawson said the city council has not had many discussions about a mask mandate. He said he had talked with the health department, Country Club, and the county commission on Saturday about setting up a zoom call to discuss it.
This is a different approach than St. Joseph’s Mayor and City Council. Mayor Bill McMurray, with his council’s support, just recently extended an order requiring face coverings in public. Buchanan County Commissioners have not issued a similar order and instead have opted to strongly encourage mask use.
Baumann and Caldwell said if they were to enact a countywide mask requirement, they would want the health department, city leaders, and the commission to all be parties to it. Nearby Livingston County has taken this route and in addition to city and county leaders included the officials of Hedrick Medical Center located in Chillicothe. Sherry Weldon the head of Livingston County Health Center said the order was less about enforcement and more of a group statement about the dire circumstances of the pandemic. She said the CEO of Hedrick Medical Center asked for the mandate because the hospital was at capacity and rural patients were taking up at least 30 percent of hospital beds in metro facilities.
Baumann said no area hospital or medical centers have raised a similar concern with the commission.
“They have not said our people are filling up the hospital beds,” Baumann said. “I would assume that we have some residents in there but they haven’t brought up that concern to us yet.”
Additionally, at least one commissioner believes “freedom”, as he described it, should be part of the larger conversation before any action is taken.
Caldwell said he agrees with the points previously made by Gov. Mike Parson, that public health warnings, hospitalizations, deaths, and new cases must be balanced with civil liberties.
“I wear a mask when I’m out and try to be a good example but I feel like people still want the freedom and I’m not speaking for the other commissioners, that’s how I feel,” Caldwell said. “I just feel like we should make it a strong recommendation and if the businesses and schools have a guideline and somebody comes in and doesn’t wear a mask they have the authority to ask them to leave and if they don’t then they can call the authorities.”