The Missourian solicited written answers to a set of nine questions from the six candidates for the Columbia City Council.
Bill Weitkemper, Jim Meyer and Andrea Waner are seeking a three-year term representing the Second Ward, while incumbent Betsy Peters and challengers Randy Minchew and Philip Merriman are competing to represent the Sixth Ward. The election is April 6.
Here are the candidates' answers to the following question, which was posed to the candidates before recent revisions to Columbia and Boone County health directives that lifted many of the restrictions on local businesses.
How would you assess the Columbia/Boone County Department of Health and Human Services’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and what do you believe the city’s next steps should be?
Waner: I strongly agree with the pandemic control measures implemented in response to the pandemic. Our public health officials — with the support of local officials — took a science-based approach to pandemic protocols. We watched with concern this winter as our local hospitals were near capacity because of the lack of similar measures in surrounding areas. If we had not taken steps to slow the spread, we would have been without access to critical care for non-COVID-related patients. As we continue to lift restrictions, we should be ready to help local businesses get back on their feet. We need to find ways to waive fees and allow businesses the flexibility to adjust to the limitations in place. That means allowing curbside pickup of alcohol drinks or unprepared foods. Encouraging creative use of outdoor spaces usually reserved for vehicular traffic. Uplifting and rewarding businesses that are being creative while following safety guidelines.
Weitkemper: I think the Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been very good. One area of improvement that could have been made, that was likely due to a lack of staffing, was to have had better enforcement of the mandates, like mask wearing and private gatherings of large groups of people, especially around holidays. Columbia and Boone County were fortunate to have had an experienced, dedicated and professional staff to guide us through this COVID-19 pandemic. Overall, I think Director Stephanie Browning and her staff have done, and are doing, a very good job. However, the job will not be done until the county of Boone has no COVID-19-related deaths for six months. The Health Department must now concentrate on persuading everyone to get vaccinated and to continue following all the recommended precautions before declaring victory over COVID-19.
Meyer: I can understand why the city made those decisions initially, given the lack of knowledge about the disease, and I recognize that our response was not as damaging as some other cities and states around the country, but I don’t think that the halting of "non-essential" businesses was effective and am glad that it was quickly relaxed. I don’t think that the original 10% or now 50% occupancy limits have any strong basis in evidence, and I don’t support them. I don’t agree with the limits to operating hours of bars, etc. I think mask wearing should be voluntary and not compulsory. I think that the city does a good job of making information about the disease public and that it should focus on informing people who should then be free to make their own risk-management decisions given their own personal situations and vulnerabilities.
Merriman: Among the worst. The CDC just released documentation stating that COVID-19 infection rates had delta of within 1-2% between areas with mask mandates and those without. The notion that a cotton mask will protect the human body from viruses is patently anti-science and should be repealed immediately. Columbia also needs to court more business development in the wake of 2020. We need to incentivize more people to start businesses. This will not only help us recover as a community but also our economy.
Peters: They have done an excellent job. They monitored the rapidly increasing number of cases last March and issued the stay-at-home order. They worked with the business community, our first responders and essential workers to keep the city operating while keeping our citizens safe. They followed the data, the science and the recommendations of the experts in the field of infectious disease. Our health services were stretched but not overwhelmed, and we were able to improve the safety of our essential workers. The mask mandates and social distancing once in place allowed our economy to re-open, supporting both our economy and citizens. The Health Department also worked closely with local businesses, helping them open while following the public health guidelines. As spring comes and the COVID vaccine is available, the public Health Department continues to follow the science, recommending social distancing and masking while opening up our businesses.
Minchew: We were in a very difficult situation, and I believe the Health Department’s initial response was the best action based on the data they had at the time. As things progressed, I don’t feel they adjusted quickly enough to address the additional problems being created. The economic and social impact on small business owners, parents and school children will be felt for a long time to come.
Missourian reporters Dylan Schwartz, Anna Ortega, Paul Schloesser, Charlie Drape, Alexandria Wells and Kelsy Armstrong helped gather candidate responses to the Missourian questionnaire.