The national debate over whether people should be forced to wear masks in public has come to Columbia — and that debate is heated.

Petitions are circulating both in favor and opposed to such a requirement — suggested in a Friday evening tweet by Mayor Brian Treece.

“With rising cases of coronavirus, this is a responsible & simple public health initiative to curb the spread of COVID-19, protect public health and keep our economy open,” Treece said in his tweet about requiring masks.

That same day as the mayor’s tweet, Boone County reported an 8.2% positivity rate for the county’s COVID-19 tests, an alarming statistic that shows the virus is spreading rapidly within the community. On Monday, the county reported 91 active cases — nearly triple the 32 active cases reported four weeks ago, on June 1.

A public mask requirement enacted by Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas went into effect Monday. That order includes exemptions for minors, people with respiratory problems, people who have been told by a doctor not to wear a mask and people with disabilities that prevent them from comfortably wearing, taking off or communicating with a mask. The order also does not require people to wear masks while they are seated at a restaurant or bar eating or drinking.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people wear masks in public settings, especially when social distancing measures are difficult to maintain. This is because the virus travels through respiratory droplets released when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks. A mask catches many of these droplets before they travel through the air to another person, the CDC says.

The CDC website lists several scientific studies that show the effectiveness of masks. One of those studies, conducted by researchers from Qingdao Agricultural University in China, showed medical and homemade masks blocked 97.14% and 95.15% of the virus in aerosols, respectively.

As has played out across the nation, however, not everyone in Columbia is in agreement about a mask ordinance. Two Change.org petitions sprung up over the weekend, pushing opposite sides of the debate.

The petition, “Columbians AGAINST forced masks wearing in public” argues that many doctors have said masks can cause medical issues and health departments should be advising people how to increase their immunity instead. The petition states that many people in the community believe “the ‘mask movement’ causes more harm than good.”

The CDC acknowledges that in some situations wearing a mask can exacerbate or cause health and safety issues. Because of this, it does not recommend masks for children younger than 2, anyone with trouble breathing, anyone with a disability that makes a face mask not feasible or anyone who is unconscious or incapacitated. Many communities with mandatory mask laws include such exceptions.

Some people just don’t think this is something the government should mandate. Anna Farechild, who is from Mexico, Missouri, but comes to Columbia to shop or eat out, thinks it should be a business’s decision whether to require masks or not.

“I can’t get behind it,” she said. “If they (business owners) require that you wear a mask to go into their store or wherever, then I think you should have to.”

Monday evening, the petition had garnered over 190 signatures.

Another petition arguing the opposite, “Masks Save Lives — Public Space Mask Policy in Columbia, MO. #CoMOWearsMasks” was signed by over 900 people Monday evening, two days after its creation.

The petition lists nine reasons why requiring face masks is important. Among those reasons are the fact that cloth masks obstruct a high portion of respiratory droplets that spread the virus and that some people are contagious even before they have symptoms. The petition also states that municipal regulations appear to be highly effective at increasing mask usage and slowing or stopping the spread of the virus and that in order to successfully reopen the economy, people must feel safe. The petition also includes links to supporting evidence.

Local bartender Dani Perez agrees that masks should be required.

“It’s no different than wearing a seat belt right now,” she said. “We started flattening the curve after these three months of stopping everything, and now we’re back to almost square one because people, once we started opening the doors, decided to be careless.”

Perez is concerned that many people aren’t taking the pandemic seriously.

“You see people barhopping, no masks and not really being cautious or conscious that there is still a disease going about,” she said.

Columbia Public Schools sent out a letter to families Monday regarding mask-wearing in the classroom. The letter said that the school district will expect students to wear masks at school come August. It also said it expects there will be exceptions for certain students. This comes after an online webinar where parents showed overall support for a mask requirement.

The specifics of Columbia’s ordinance are expected to be released Friday, when the city council agenda is released. The council will most likely discuss this ordinance at its meeting next Monday.

For more COVID-19 related news, see our section dedicated to COVID-19 updates.
  • I'm a reporter covering city and county government and other public life topics and an assistant city editor. I also study investigative journalism at MU. Reach me at wksg8b@mail.missouri.edu. You can also find me on twitter @WillSkipworth.

  • As senior editor of the Missourian, Fred Anklam manages general assignment reporters. He can be reached at anklamf@missouri.edu or in the newsroom at 573-882-5720.

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