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Two weeks ago, dozens of maskless Independence, Mo., residents gathered at an indoor city council meeting to debate a proposed mask mandate. The majority of council members in the Kansas City suburb rejected the mandate.
Now, the city’s health department is warning all attendees they were “likely exposed” to the coronavirus. In a statement Monday, department officials said they have learned at least one person who attended the meeting has tested positive for the virus.
“All individuals in attendance at this meeting who were in the chamber . . . should get tested, especially if showing any symptoms,” the department cautioned.
The announcement comes as local governments grapple with reinforcing mask mandates as covid cases continue to rise, putting pressure on hospitals filling up with unvaccinated patients. Some city governments are encountering angry residents ardently against mask mandates.
What happened in Independence echoes a similar occurrence earlier this summer in another Missouri city. Less than a week after community members swarmed a St. Louis County council meeting to oppose a mask mandate, the city’s health department announced in late July that an attendee had tested positive for covid. The department encouraged those who were there to quarantine for nine days “out of an abundance of caution.”
Just 10 miles east of downtown Kansas City, Independence has about 121,000 residents and is best known as the place where President Harry S. Truman grew up. Its major tourist attraction is Truman’s Presidential Library and Museum, which has been closed since July 26 due to the high number of covid-19 cases in Jackson County, its website states.
Over the past month, city leaders in Independence have flip-flopped on mask mandates.
At the end of July, the mayor enacted a public health order following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s updated guidelines for the highly contagious delta variant. The order strongly encouraged masks indoors and required them inside city buildings.
But less than a week later, on Aug. 3, Mayor Eileen Weir rescinded the part of the order requiring masks in government buildings.
The city’s health department pressed the mayor to reconsider, given the rising number of cases.
“I think we’re in really bad shape right now with our hospitals,” Christina Heinen, the acting Independence health director, said at the time, according to WDAF. “Our chief medical officers are crying out for help. They are seeing record numbers of patients in their hospitals.”
The city’s Advisory Board of Health voted unanimously to endorse mask requirements. One member, the chief medical officer at a hospital, said that in his 35-year career, he had never experienced such a dire situation of staff and hospital bed shortages, according to the Examiner, a local newspaper.
As of last week, Independence had a 15.6 percent positivity rate, the city’s covid dashboard shows. That exceeds the state’s positivity rate of 12.6 percent, according to The Washington Post’s coronavirus tracker.
Jackson County, which encompasses Independence and Kansas City, put forth a mask mandate that went into effect on Aug. 9. The county legislature voted Monday to extend the order to Oct. 7. But Independence has its own health department, making it exempt from the county’s health orders.
On Aug. 10, the Independence School District announced that all students age 2 and older must wear masks at school. Two days later, the mayor asked the city council to hold a vote on a mask mandate.
Since a new Missouri law gives city councils the power to stop public health orders that exceed 30 days, she had decided against implementing a mask mandate without council members’ approval.
The Independence City Council met on Aug. 16 and more than 100 people attended the meeting, according to the Examiner. Most of the attendees were maskless and protested the proposed order.
Several residents said they believed the mask mandate infringed on their freedoms.
“We have given up more and more freedoms in the name of safety,” one man said, according to the Examiner. The pandemic “is being unnecessarily and greatly exaggerated to make us fear it.”
Others claimed a mask mandate would have a negative effect on local businesses that would have to enforce it.
“You make them the sheriff; you make them the bad people,” one woman said.
But some spoke in support of the mandate.
“To my knowledge, correct me if I’m wrong, none of you are qualified to make public health decisions based on your education and experience,” one woman said to the council members, according to the Kansas City Star.
Another attendee noted that masks were “common sense” given the new wave of cases. “It puzzles me why we resist,” she said.
The city council ultimately voted against the measure in a 4-2 vote. Weir, the mayor, and one other council member, Dan Hobart, voted in favor of the mandate.
Council member Mike Huff, who voted no, said that while covid is dangerous, he has no right to dictate people’s decisions on how they protect themselves.
“I believe this is too much overreach for municipal government,” Huff said, according to the Examiner. “I wish all people would get a vaccine, but it is a personal choice.”
Two weeks later – the standard amount of time it can take for covid symptoms to surface – the Independence health department learned at least one attendee had tested positive for the virus, exposing the entire room.
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