Crawford County Commissioners voted Monday to issue a shelter-in-place order for the county as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. The first positive case in the county was reported on Saturday.
At the conclusion of a three-hour special called meeting to discuss the issue, commissioners voted to issue the shelter-in-place ordinance to go into effect on April 1 at 12:01 a.m. and expire on April 30 at 11:59 p.m. However, the commission will be meeting each week with the health department director, emergency management director, and law enforcement personnel to review the situation and determine whether the order can be rescinded, or will need to be extended.
Honor Evans, director of the Crawford County Health Department, initiated discussion of the topic on Monday by reiterating information released on Saturday, March 28, that the first confirmed case of COVID-19 had occurred within the county (see related story). She noted that state reporting put the total number of cases in the state at 903, with 12 deaths, but added, “that is a less than accurate number because it’s changing all the time. We do have cases in the surrounding area.”
Evans also noted data being reported is reliant on the amount of testing being done, and there has not been an “abundance” of that. She said the virus could already be circulating, and could have penetrated Crawford County to a greater extent than is known.
To date, the county has been urging citizens to maintain social distancing, but she had concerns that would not be enough. “I think the right thing to do is everything we can do to protect (everyone),” she said.
Another important consideration Evans mentioned was protecting the local hospital (in Sullivan, within the county) and its resources, noting it is a small hospital without a large number of beds or ventilators. “We are obligated to protect the staff, too,” she said.
The order refers to the serious nature of the virus, and because of what is going on within the state and local area, says there reasonably appears “to exist a state of civil emergency which requires a response by the county commission to protect human life from the continued spread of COVID-19, including a directive that the citizens of the county stay at home to limit social contact and the spread of COVID-19.”
The intent of the order is to ensure as many people as possible stay at home as much as possible, yet not to prevent the continuation of essential services. This is intended to slow the spread of the virus within the county. The order adds, “When people leave their place of residence, whether to obtain or perform essential services, or to otherwise facilitate authorized activities, they should at all times reasonably comply with social distancing requirements.”
Those requirements include maintaining at least six feet of physical distance from other individuals, washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds as frequently as possible or using hand sanitizer, regularly cleaning high-touch surfaces, and not shaking hands.
The order limiting group events and social gatherings to 10 people or less in a single space or room is still in effect as well, due to the unique characteristics and the risks associated with the transmission dynamics of COVID-19.
The order includes an Exhibit A, titled “Civil Emergency Order,” that provides further details. It defines what it means to shelter in place, states that all non-essential businesses and operations must cease in-person operations, provides a list of definitions and exemptions for “essential activities” and “essential businesses,” along with “minimum basic operations” allowed for non-essential businesses.
Presiding Commissioner Leo Sanders noted, “We don’t want people to just stay home from their jobs. If your place of business is open, go to work and support your family.”
Evans added that people should work from home if possible, and said those businesses still open should be operating under modified circumstances. She said, “You can go outside, just maintain distance. You can get what you need.” She also said she hoped the result of this order would be that people will take this more seriously and “really limit your time out in public to what is essential.”
“We are just coping the best we can,” Sanders said. “The fact of the matter is, we are here, and we are trying to protect the people of Crawford County. That is our job, that is what we were elected to do. I hope that everyone understands that all the people involved in this—that’s what we’re trying to do—to protect the people. We’re in this together. We’re going to get through this. I don’t know when, don’t know how long, but we will pull through this.”
The list of “essential businesses” is extensive, and there was discussion among those at the meeting about which ones are not, and how they could argue that they are in an attempt to remain open. Some examples of non-essential would be those providing personal services such salons which provide nail, hair, tanning or massage services; resale shops or antique shops/malls; bars; gyms/fitness centers; movie theaters, and concert halls. County officials noted those who have questions on a particular business can refer to the list of essential businesses. The lists are based on industry classifications, and further clarification can be sought from the Department of Labor.
Lesa Mizell, who serves as Emergency Management Director for Crawford County, and is co-owner of Mizell Funeral Home, noted, “Every business could make an argument for being essential. We can all make reasons why everyone should remain open. But we’re trying to save people’s lives. We’re trying to get people to stay home. We’re trying to protect people.”
Evans added, “And it might not be enough. It’s up to us to keep ourselves safe. You don’t have to know who has been diagnosed to protect yourself. It’s up to every single person.
We’ve not reached our peak in Missouri or in Crawford County. It’s coming.”
While county officials hope people will comply with the order, there are provisions for anyone who does not. County Attorney David Smith reported there are two methods of enforcement. One is based on a state statute, and applies to an individual who willfully violates an order issued by a health department or commission designed for prevention of contagious diseases. That violation could result in a criminal charge for a class A misdemeanor. The other enforcement would be a civil approach to the matter, where an official would inform a business or organization of a violation. If they refused to rectify the issue, the health department could issue a citation. If that was also ignored, Smith could file a petition to temporarily close the business until a full hearing could be held.
“These are the extremes,” Smith noted. “These are not measures we are itching to get out and do. Law enforcement doesn’t want to issue citations. The health department doesn’t want to get their personnel out. But those are remedies that are available. Our goal is to get everyone in the community on board with their responsibilities as an individual and as businesses.”
Sheriff Darin Layman pointed out, “This is not martial law. This is not the government taking over, setting curfews. We’re not out here trying to shut businesses down and take citizens to jail—we’re here to keep the peace. The goal of this is preventing the spread of this pandemic.”
Although Sanders initially pushed for the order to be in effect for 15 days, citing concerns about encouraging panic, others at the meeting felt 30 days was a better option, especially with the provision for an early cancelation if the situation were to improve more quickly. There was discussion about aligning with the most recent determination by county schools to attempt to reopen on April 27, but in light of President Donald Trump’s extension of social distancing guidelines to April 30, and a brief text discussion with an area superintendent, the commission agreed to the full month’s order.
Sanders also noted that Annalee Williams was recording minutes for the meeting because “our clerk (John Martin) excused himself from any of this.”