HILLSBORO — As Missouri again broke its single-day record for new COVID-19 cases Tuesday, about 50 protesters gathered in Jefferson County to oppose a proposal to require masks in public places, designed to slow the spread of the virus.
The crowd gathered outside the Jefferson County Department of Health board meeting, holding signs with messages like: “My right to say ‘no mask.’ The group was then rallied by new health department board member and mask skeptic Suzy Davis.
”Are we worried?” Davis yelled to the crowd about the virus. The group responded with a resounding: “No!”
Davis refused to wear a mask inside at the meeting, where face coverings were required, pulling her bandana around her neck. Davis operates the Rocking J Ranch wedding venue in High Ridge and was elected to the board June 2. She helped promote the protest Tuesday as it gained attendees through several local anti-mask Facebook groups, including Mask Free Missouri and No Mask Jeffco.
The more than 2½-hour meeting was marked with some contentious moments between Davis and the rest of the board. Members ultimately voted to call a special meeting at 3 p.m. July 28 for further discussion.
A Facebook live video of the meeting had more than 3,100 comments, both in favor and opposing the mask requirement by Tuesday afternoon.
The Hillsboro gathering followed a similar protest Monday night in neighboring Franklin County that drew several hundred demonstrators who opposed a mask requirement. The meeting of the Union Board of Aldermen ended with the board opting not to discuss a mask proposal.
The protests come as Missouri is seeing a sharp rise in new cases of COVID-19. The state’s daily count topped 1,000 for the first time Tuesday, and has set single-day records three times in the past two weeks. The Department of Health and Senior Services attributed Tuesday’s 1,138 new reported cases to a backlog of test results just now being reported from earlier weeks.
But the state’s positivity rate — the percentage of COVID-19 tests that are positive — has increased to 6.4% in mid-July up from 4.4% in mid-June, according to department spokeswoman Lisa Cox.
Missouri has reported 34,762 total virus cases and 1,143 total deaths since the start of the pandemic.
St. Louis County recorded its second-highest increase on Tuesday, with 247 new cases. St. Charles County marked its third-highest increase, with 146. St. Charles County’s five highest single-day counts have all come in the past 10 days.
St. Louis area hospitalizations increased Tuesday, according to the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force. For the first time since May 2, more than 40 COVID-19 positive people were admitted to St. Louis area hospitals. The seven-day average for new COVID-19 admissions topped 35 Tuesday.
St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson has previously said if that average reached 35, or if 40 or more people were admitted to a hospital for three out of four days, city officials will consider “pulling back” some reopening measures. The mayor announced Friday that a plan to allow events to return to 100% capacity would be put on hold because of the rising numbers, Jacob Long, a spokesman for Krewson said when asked if more restrictions would be added Tuesday.
These maps and charts show the spread of COVID-19 in Missouri and Illinois.
Jefferson County debates masks
Most of the Jefferson County protesters Tuesday focused their arguments against masks on skepticism about the epidemic and arguments that a requirement would violate individual freedoms.
Signs included lines from the Constitution, Bible quotes, a mask with the word “fear” written on it and a picture of sheep in masks, indicating mask wearers are following the herd.
“Most people are not wearing masks here in Jefferson County already,” Davis told the Post-Dispatch before the meeting. “And look around. We’re fine. I don’t think masks work and I actually think they hurt us because we don’t build up herd immunity.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending people wear face coverings in public settings.
St. Louis County and city have mask requirements in place, but neighboring counties including Jefferson and St. Charles do not.
Davis’ views were also challenged during the meeting by Keith Starke, chief clinical officer for the Mercy hospital system, who said masks are a key way to block the droplets that spread COVID-19. Starke offered Sweden as an example of a nation that relied on herd immunity but suffered high death rates from the virus.
Jefferson County Department of Health Director Kelley Vollmar spoke in favor of more requirements to prevent the spread of the virus. There have been 100 new cases reported every three days for the past several weeks in the county, adding up to a total of 1,007 confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic, Vollmar said.
“I understand what is sitting outside of this room,” Vollmar said referencing the protesters, “But I do not think it is right as the public health agency for this county not to take action when we are seeing the number of cases we are seeing. It is irresponsible.”
Davis said she was not convinced by the data that the virus warranted any restrictions, and believed herd immunity was the answer.
“Our only hope is that it does spread so that it can end,” she said at the meeting.
Vollmar asked Davis not to promote a similar demonstration before next week’s meeting, explaining that it caused the department to halt back-to-school vaccinations for the day. “While I appreciate the fact that you have been outspoken,” Vollmar said, “I would appreciate not having this circus which you have created outside of our front doors.”
Protesters outside the meeting like Anjie Wittu, of Imperial, said they support Davis and are skeptical of masks and also of receiving a vaccine when it is available.
“They’re both government overreach,” Wittu said. “It’s all just trying to make people scared.”
Among the dozens of mask opponents Tuesday, one counter-protester, Jessie Shepherd, sat in a lawn chair with her sign reading: “Mask up JeffCo.”
Shepherd spoke to the board in favor of a mask requirement, saying she worried about the safety of relatives at Hillsboro schools if masks are not required. Shepherd cited other public health measures already in place.
“We don’t allow smoking in buildings,” Shepherd said. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable to request that people wear masks indoors.”
Updated at 8:50 p.m. Tuesday with information from Jefferson County Department of Health board meeting.
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