Lowndes County Board of Supervisors agreed it should issue some sort of mandate that citizens wear masks in public, particularly in businesses, at one of its rare work sessions on Friday.
Supervisors called the session specifically to discuss masks and other issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. They cannot vote during work sessions, but they set an official meeting for 9 a.m. Monday to vote on mask mandates, as well as COVID-19-related policies for county employees.
Board Attorney Tim Hudson suggested the county implement its own ordinance requiring citizens wear masks in businesses, which District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks said could “parrot” the city of Columbus’ ordinance — which requires citizens wear masks in businesses, except when eating or exercising — implemented July 8.
Another option, Hudson said, is for supervisors to request Gov. Tate Reeves add Lowndes County to a list of counties under statewide mask orders and other COVID-19-related restrictions. Currently, 29 Mississippi counties are under such orders due to the number of cases there.
Hudson’s last recommendation was that supervisors could do both — implement their own mask ordinance for the county and pass a resolution requesting Reeves add Lowndes County to the list.
While supervisors did not settle on any of Hudson’s proposed options, those who were present — District 2 Supervisor Trip Hairston was out of town — largely agreed there needs to be some sort of mandate in place.
“It doesn’t harm the person who’s wearing the mask at all,” District 1 Supervisor Harry Sanders said. “It protects other people from getting it. I’d hate to have it on my conscience that I was … positive and didn’t wear a mask and I caused somebody else to get it and they passed away. I think we need to require it.”
District 4 Supervisor Jeff Smith said the county should pass “at least” the same requirements as the city.
“If (we) see something that needs to be done that’s a little more stringent than the city, I’m open to even that,” he said.
Hudson said if supervisors decide to pass both their own ordinance and a request to the governor, whatever their own ordinance says cannot be less restrictive than Reeves’ executive order. He also advised supervisors take into account that some local governments are facing lawsuits in response to ordinances they have passed on their own, including both Columbus and Starkville.
“If the governor puts us under his executive orders, that’s his declaration, not ours,” he said.
Jay Fisher, who is training to become county administrator after current administrator Ralph Billingsley retires Sept. 30, told supervisors that as of Thursday, there were 745 cases of COVID-19 in Lowndes County, an increase of 31 cases from the day before. There was a weekly increase of 148, representing about a 24.79 percent increase “week-on-week.”
“Those are the kinds of statistics that the governor is using to determine whether or not we should be placed on the list for additional restrictions,” he said. “…This was not something we were given from the state. This was something we’ve generated locally to try to find out if we’re getting closer and closer to that cutline.”
Brooks pointed to increasing numbers in the county and surrounding area for why there needs to be a mask mandate in place.
“We’re seeing … 15 to 20 (new cases) each day,” said Brooks, a statement Lowndes County Emergency Management Agency Director Cindy Lawrence confirmed. “When you look at the numbers of the people that’s dying, it’s statistical. … I lost a niece the other night, 45 years old. … Her husband tested positive. He’s on dialysis and he has diabetes. Her mom has tested positive. When you start recognizing (the virus affecting) people you know, it kind of gives you a different perspective.
“These numbers are going up,” he added. “The death rates are going up.”
Supervisors also directed Fisher (Billingsley was on vacation) to draw up COVID-19 policies for county employees, after several supervisors and department heads at the meeting raised concerns that there is no countywide policy that applies to everyone. Instead, departments have been coming up with their own policies.
Brooks also said he is concerned that many county employees are not wearing masks while at work, and said he has particularly noticed a lack of masks in the tax office, one of the more heavily trafficked county buildings.
“Some (other) issues have come up about sick leave, time off,” he said. “So I thought, we just need to outline those things.”
Fisher said he would draft policies for department heads, including how to sanitize office areas and how employees who have to take time off while waiting for test results will be paid. Smith also asked that he come up with a simplified version of those policies, such as in chart form, to distribute to all county employees, while giving the more detailed policies to department heads.