The Columbia City Council urged further and more aggressive enforcement of Columbia’s virus prevention efforts Tuesday as it unanimously voted to authorize Health Director Stephanie Browning to extend the most recent COVID-19 directive beyond its expiration date of Sept. 17 if she finds it necessary.
The order requires bars and restaurants that serve alcohol to stop serving drinks at 9 p.m. and to close by 10 p.m. It also restricts gatherings to no more than 20 people unless a plan is filed with and approved by the Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services.
Council members floated several ideas for more aggressively combatting the spread of the virus. Mayor Brian Treece wants Columbia to have “no-barrier testing,” which would allow people to get tested without needing insurance or a doctor’s order.
“If we’re not going to do surveillance testing, I think we do need to increase the opportunities for no questions asked, no physician referral, no-barrier testing,” Treece said.
Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas urged the city to follow suggestions from the White House, including the closure of bars and gyms. His other suggestions included creating outdoor dining opportunities, limiting social gatherings to 10 or fewer people and instituting weekly testing in assisted living and long-term care facilities.
“I love going to bars ... and I’ve missed it tremendously over the last many months, but I think that following these recommendations is the best way to get back to the kind of life we had,” Thomas said.
Browning updated the council on the city’s COVID-19 prevention efforts. She agreed with Thomas that regular testing at nursing homes could be beneficial but said she has seen no data reflecting transmission of the virus through gyms.
Pressed by council members to pursue more aggressive strategies to slow the spread of the virus, Browning said any move toward shutting down businesses again would need broad support, especially given that others cities and county's in Missouri aren't moving in that direction.
“I’d say that’s a larger community conversation,” Browning said. “For the public health director to get up there and close things down again, it needs to have a lot more conversation than just me.”
Browning agreed with Treece that no-barrier testing would be ideal. She said the best strategies going forward are to test as many people as possible and for people to change their behavior by wearing masks, avoiding large gatherings and quarantining when they test positive or have had close contact with those who have.
"We are our best hope," she said.
Delays in contact tracing were the primary concern of Sixth Ward Councilwoman Betsy Peters, who said she'd like to see a turnaround time of 24 to 48 hours rather than the five to seven days it now takes on average to notify people whether they've had close contact with a person who tested positive.
Although the Health Department and MU have contact tracing teams working in tandem, Browning said MU’s team is understaffed and unable to deal with the recent rise in student cases.
Browning said the Health Department has been monitoring downtown and noticed activity slowing down. She said there is a chance of a spike again soon following Labor Day weekend and the following couple weeks.
Boone County reported 1,055 active COVID-19 cases as of Tuesday afternoon, with cases in the age 18 to 22 range surging since students returned to MU. Browning told the council that the county also is seeing significant spikes in positive cases among older age groups.