*This story has been updated to include comments from Washington Mayor Sandy Lucy, Franklin County Presiding Commissioner Tim Brinker and information from Mercy Hospital Washington.*
A countywide mask mandate, which was ordered by the Franklin County Commission, took effect at 12:01 a.m. Friday, Nov. 20. The mandate is set to expire at noon Sunday, Dec. 20.
Franklin County Presiding Commissioner Tim Brinker wrote in an email Thursday that the mask order comes on the heels of “dire public health warnings” from Missouri Gov. Mike Parson.
Brinker said he and the other members of the commission had been in communication with Mercy Hospital Washington physicians Dr. Bret Riegel and Dr. David Chalk, and Dr. Alex Garza, who is the director of the St. Louis Regional Pandemic Task Force. The county also has consulted with Laura Kaiser, president and CEO of SSM Health.
In an interview with The Missourian, Brinker said, “We have real hard information that most people probably are not privy to ... by all means, the numerics speak for themselves.”
In its daily report, the county health department announced 109 new positive COVID-19 cases on Friday. There were also 18 new COVID-19 deaths reported, bringing the county’s total to 75.
“We now have 30 days to prove that Franklin County can do what it needs to do,” Brinker said. “With the most recent analyses (showing) masks do impede the spread of COVID-19. Let’s give it a shot. Let’s prove it.”
Researchers and public health officials say the virus is spread through respiratory droplets that people expel when they breath, speak, cough or sneeze. People can be infected with the COVID-19 virus and be asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic but still be contagious to others.
The abrupt announcement from the Franklin County Commission took many law enforcement and governmental leaders by surprise, including Washington Mayor Sandy Lucy, who said she was unaware that the county was considering such a mandate.
Union Capt. Rick Neace said he found out about the mandate on Facebook.
In the announcement of the mandate, the county commission defined a “face mask” as a covering of cloth, fabric or other soft or permeable material — without holes — that covers the nose and surrounding areas of the lower face. A covering that hides or obscures an individual’s eyes or forehead is not a face mask.
Mercy Hospital Washington President Eric Eoloff said he was “grateful” that the county commission issued the mask mandate.
“The data are overwhelmingly clear that COVID-19 is spreading through the county at an alarming rate,” Eoloff said. “The commission did the right thing.”
Lucy said she too was thrilled to hear of the mandate.
“I’m so happy (they) did it,” Lucy said. The Washington City Council, which previously voted against a mask mandate in August, was preparing to hold a special meeting to revisit the issue Monday, Nov. 23.
“This probably will be a game changer for us,” Lucy said.
Lucy said the meeting will proceed Monday, as council members still want to discuss the mask mandate they had been working on. The Washington mandate would be similar to the county’s except that instead of ending on a specified date, it would end when the city stayed in the “green zone” for four straight weeks. The colored zone metrics that the city uses to track the spread of the virus come from the Harvard Global Health Institute and focus on daily cases per 100,000 people on a 14-day rolling average, whether the risk of being hospitalized from COVID-19 is changing and whether the risk of death from COVID-19 is changing, according to previous Missourian reporting. Lucy said it’s possible the council will still decide to implement its own mandate impacting the city of Washington.
“We’re trying to be very thorough and have measurable results,” Lucy said. “COVID is a very serious matter in our community. I applaud the county for doing a countywide mask mandate.”
Lucy toured the hospital Thursday and was “so impressed” with the hospital staff and their “spirit of providing excellent care (and) going above and beyond their call of duty.” She said one of the most critical things the council is considering is the ICU population at Mercy and whether a mask mandate would help lessen the strain on the hospital staff.
“The last thing any of us wants is to have a loved one need to be admitted because of something other than COVID, and there’s no room at the inn,” Lucy said. “The patients at the hospital are not just from Washington. They’re from all over the county and neighboring counties, so a mask mandate needs to be widespread.”
According to Eoloff, it will take “several weeks” before the community is able to see the impact of the mask mandate.
“This is because there are people who have been exposed within the last 14 days who are not yet symptomatic, don’t know they have the virus and who have not yet been tested,” Eoloff said.
The Franklin County Commission is authorized to make such a mandate per its state constitutional duties, according to state statutes cited in the resolution approved by the county commission.
In the resolution, the commission writes that “the spread of COVID-19 will continue to grow at an exponential rate for the foreseeable future unless additional measures are implemented to reduce the spread of the disease.”
“The exponential spread of the disease has the potential to overwhelm the community’s medical resources,” the commission’s resolution said.
Mercy Hospital Washington was at 123 percent capacity in the intensive care unit in the last week, according to Eoloff. Due to the large number of ICU patients, the hospital had to place three patients in its ambulatory care center.
According to the resolution, the mask mandate applies to anyone older than 10 and states that anyone within the county, including nonresidents, must wear a face mask any time they are, or will be, “in contact with other people in public indoor spaces who are not household members.”
Violators of the mandate can be sentenced in county court to pay a monetary fine. Individuals could face fines of $15, while businesses or government entities could face fines of $100 per violation.
Employees in the county also are required to wear a face mask, and employers “shall make” face masks available to the employees who do not have one, according to the commission.
Masks will not need to be worn when outdoors and at least 6 feet from others.
Franklin County residents will not need to wear a mask when they are playing sports, exercising outdoors or indoors when they are able to maintain a distance of at least 6 feet from others.
Residents will not need to wear a mask when at their home, unless they are in a common area that is shared by multiple families.
Masks also will not need to be worn when in a vehicle.
Restaurant and bar patrons will need to wear a mask when in the dining area unless they are eating or drinking and unable to socially distance themselves from others.
Residents who have a documented medical condition, mental health condition or disability that prevents them from wearing a face mask are excluded from the mask mandate. The exclusion also applies to any resident who may be deaf or hard of hearing.