As businesses began to reopen this week in Boone County, many were left to decide for themselves whether to take a specific measure that the Centers for Disease Control and other health experts have recommended: wearing masks.

The city-county reopening order requires that businesses providing personal care — and customers receiving it — wear masks.

Hair and nail salons and massage parlors all fall into this category. Restaurants, retail shops and others were left to their own devices.

The question of whether to require masks at retail establishments came up last month at a City Council meeting when Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas asked Columbia/Boone County Public Health and Human Services Director Stephanie Browning about the viability of requiring them.

Browning replied that masks were not a replacement for social distancing.

”We know that when people wear masks, they often don’t put them on right, they don’t take them off right (and) they fidget with their face more,” Browning said.

Health department community relations specialist Lucio Bitoy reiterated those reservations about mask usage in an email this week but added that any business owner could require customers and employees to wear masks, even if not mandated under the order.

The order’s distinction for where masks were required was based on the viability of social distancing, Bitoy said. That’s hard, if not impossible, during a hair or nail appointment. For example: when the employee comes in direct, prolonged contact with the client.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing a mask in public to act as a barrier to transmission and slow the spread of COVID-19. On its website, the CDC offers a guide for how to correctly wear and use a mask.

Up to 25% of COVID-19 patients are asymptomatic, according to previous Missourian reporting, meaning they can spread the virus without even knowing it. By wearing a mask, many health experts say, asymptomatic carriers can help prevent transmission.

‘We all need to be wearing masks’

Vin Gupta, affiliate assistant professor of health metrics sciences at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, said masks are the key to protecting populations from COVID-19.

He emphasized their importance during a webinar last week, sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations. “If we were having this conversation in person, I could be spraying you with COVID-19 virus particles...Until we feel confident that coronavirus is not (spreading) at high rates, we all need to be wearing masks.”

When a COVID-19 carrier sneezes or coughs, viral respiratory droplets are dispelled that can live on some surfaces for up to three days and in aerosols up to three hours, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Aerosols are formed when small droplets evaporate into the air faster than they can fall to the ground.

If you are within 6 feet of someone who sneezes or coughs, you also risk coming into direct contact with these viral respiratory droplets that can enter the body through the mouth, eyes or nose.

While not explicitly mandated by the new order, some city officials are still encouraging mask usage.

At a recent Chamber of Commerce webinar, city officials emphasized the continued importance of social distancing and mask usage, according to previous Missourian coverage.

Wearing masks is one way to prevent any significant increase in the number of COVID-19 cases as businesses begin reopening.

If a spike in cases were to occur, the city will have to “take a step backward” and reimpose certain restrictions Browning said — a step she said would be “devastating,” according to previous Missourian reporting.

“I implore every citizen to be responsible, to do the right thing, minimize your contact with others, ask businesses to make the safety of their employees and customers a priority,” she said.

Michael Klompas, an infectious disease expert at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston told NPR he saw masks as a way to send a message: “Watch out. There’s a public health crisis right now ... We need to be on our top guard.”

Gupta emphasized the importance of cooperation, listing mask usage, social distancing and citizen cooperation as “linchpins of successful policy.”

“It’s going to take a lot of cooperation on the part of Americans that some people will see as voluntary, but that are important for us to abide by to stay safe,” he said.

Around the country, mask protocols have been criticized by those who don’t think their local or state government should have the power to require them to wear masks.

A mandatory mask order was called off in Stillwater, Oklahoma, after employees at restaurants and stores were threatened and verbally abused by customers who refused to wear the protective gear. And in Flint, Michigan, a Family Dollar security guard was shot and killed after he stopped a customer who wasn’t wearing a mask from entering the store.

For more COVID-19 related news, see our section dedicated to COVID-19 updates.
  • Grace Nieland is a general assignment reporter at the Missourian. She has reported on public health and safety, judicial proceedings and breaking news. She can be reached at grace.nieland@mail.missouri.edu or in the newsroom at 573-882-5720.

  • I'm the public safety and health editor at the Missourian and a professor in the School of Journalism. I'm experienced in directing investigative projects. Call me at (573) 882-1792 with story tips, ideas or complaints.

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