Prompted by a surge in the number of people in Sunflower County testing positive for the coronavirus, county and municipal leaders met, discussed and agreed upon a course of action in an effort to curtail the spread.
During a special call session on Friday, the Sunflower County Board of Supervisors met via conference call with the mayors and representatives of the municipalities to discuss a uniform way of dealing with the increase in positive cases.
Board of Supervisors President Riley Rice said, "Until we stop politicizing it and saying it's not here, then we're still going to have problems. So, we need to set an example, as leaders we need to set an example."
The culminating consensus of the group was to initiate a proclamation decreeing that masks must be worn by all city and county employees when engaging others. In addition, they agreed to provide face masks for the citizens who need them. That presented other issues such as, could wearing masks be mandated, who would provide and pay for them, plus would enough masks be available.
Sunflower County Emergency Management Director Denny Evans said, “I have got some cloth masks that I received recently for the public. I will start getting those to the municipalities Monday (June 29) and any supervisor, if you want something to give out to people I can give some to you too.”
Evan said he had also recently found out about a way to have cloth masks shipped directly from FEMA to the municipalities at no cost. "Nobody has asked for any at this point," he said. With regard to the masks, he said the turnaround time could be as much as two weeks, but he encouraged the city leaders to let him know how many they need and where they would like them shipped.
Evans emphasized that the supply of masks he has now is not nearly enough to give out to everyone in the county, but it is enough to get started and get them out to the persons who really need them. He added that the cloth masks are washable and reuseable.
During the afternoon meeting on Friday, each participant was given the opportunity to share his or her concerns, questions and thoughts on the best way to address the surge in positive cases within the county.
District 3 Supervisor Ben Gaston said that the county had experienced a 40-plus% increase in the number of positive cases within a week or so and suggested contacting Governor Tate Reeves. He mentioned that the governor had laid out stricter guidelines for several other counties and suggested that Rice, with the consent of the mayors, contact the governor about stricter regulations for Sunflower County. "Go to the governor and ask him to look at our numbers with Dr. Dobbs and see if they need to put additional restrictions on us, to include wearing the masks," he said.
Gaston said the biggest problem he sees is that people within the communities are not adhering to the guidelines whether it's masks, social distancing or crowd gathering.
District 1 Supervisor Glenn Donald told the group that he's had a long discussion with local physician Dr. Wade Dowell on the importance of masks and shared a portion of that conversation with the other leaders.
According to Donald, Dr. Dowell said that if a person who has the coronavirus and has on a mask walks up to someone who does not have a mask on, there's a 30 percent chance that that person can be contaminated. However, “If the person with the Coronavirus do not have a mask on and walk up to somebody that has a mask on then it's a 70 percent chance that they can get the virus.” he said.
Donald continued, “He said, 'but if both people, the one with the virus and the one without the virus have a mask on then there's only a one to two percent chance that this disease will be transmitted."
Donald alluded to that information being just cause to institute some type of proclamation regarding wearing masks in public especially in buildings owned and operated by the county and city government.
There was some question about whether private businesses could be mandated to require masks in their establishments. Donald said he didn't believe the local goverment could force the privately owned businesses to abide by the mask restrictions, but they could ask them to comply. "What we need to do is talk to our local business people and ask them to enforce it also, not to let people in their businesses without masks."
Indianola Mayor Steve Rosenthal asked if it had been determined that the city and county government could not legally require masks be worn in the businesses or if it was mere speculation. He clarified that his question was with regard to establishing a directive for the citizens and then asking the business owners to enforce it. Rice responded that it was their understanding that they could not require, but individual businesses could require their customers to wear masks in order to be served.
Attorney Johnny McWilliams weighed in, "I have real problems with whether you can make someone wear a mask when they go into a private (business) Walmart for instance." He emphasized that everyone was in uncharted territory and alluding to a statement made earlier by Gaston, McWilliams told them he would feel better about that restriction if they would go to the governor and ask him to look specifically at Sunflower County and say that he thinks we need further restrictions and institute an order to say it. "Then we would have some cover," he said.
He added, "There are all sorts of things that you want to do and maybe you won't get challenged and maybe you will because there are a lot of people out there who just love to sue folks." Indicating how even the most frivolous lawsuit could be costly, McWilliams added, "I urge you to go slow. I honestly think, I bet you I could spend about 30 minutes and I'll find you a law that says it's against the law to wear a mask in public," he said.
He then proceeded to address individually some of the concerns raised by the city and county leaders.
He told them they definitely have the authority to close basketball courts and parks and control the entry into their own public buildings, indicating that they could require people to wear masks in order to be admitted in.
Referencing an earlier comment by District 5 Supervisor Gloria Dickerson regarding contact-tracing. He said although it is important, it is very technical and requires proper training. "I do not recommend that the county try to hire people to do that," he said. However, he encouraged them to work with any other state health agencies that may be providing the service in the county. Evans said, "From my understanding, the health department automatically does contact-tracing on every positive case."
McWilliams also shared his opinion on what is driving the rise in the county's numbers. "One of the biggest things that's happening is, the young people, they are the ones who are mainly not complying with wearing a mask or social distancing," said McWilliams.
He said their failure to comply was not necessarily because they are bad people, but because they may not understand the importance of wearing the masks and suggested that education on the risks and harmful effects was needed.
"Y'all are just going to have to have great leadership qualities and communication skills to try to convince your people to do what you know is best for them, without making them mad and them come up and say, ‘look, the United States Constitution says I ain't got to do anything you say, I ain't got to wear a mask.' Because honestly, I don't really think you can make them," McWilliams said.
He emphasized that the county leaders should let local businesses know that they are requiring masks for all of their employees for all of their county buildings to adhere to the governmental health agencies' guidelines and that they are requesting that the businesses do the same.
Moorhead Police Chief Fred Randle, who also serves as the emergency management director for Leflore County, also contributed to the discussion. "The virus is not going anywhere and we've got to implement and enforce them to make sure we are safe." He said people shouldn't be allowed to not wear masks just because they are uncomfortable.
Referencing the possibility of county workers contracting the disease, Randle said. "When they get the virus, then we've got to shut down the whole courthouse, we've got to shut down the whole police department and quarantine because someone doesn't want to wear a mask."
Randle said another step that the Leflore County lawmakers put in place was to purchase inexpensive disposable gloves to have at the doors of county buildings for those coming in to transact business to help prevent wearing contaminated gloves into the facilities.
With regards to other safety precautions, McWilliams also added that the city and county leaders could require their employees to be tested for COVID-19 because they are all at-will employees and it would be for the safety of all of the workers.