Oswald Stephenson wears a mask and holds his receipt after checking out on Monday at Piggly Wiggly in New Hope. Stephenson said he thinks county officials should make masks required in Lowndes County because average people don't know enough about the science of COVID-19 to make the choice for themselves. "If it's going to save a life, why not?" Stephenson said. Photo by: Claire Hassler/Dispatch Staff
Cashiers work and customers shop on Monday at Piggly Wiggly in New Hope. Ken Wright, an employee at the grocery story, said about 50 percent of their customers do not wear masks in the store. Most of the employees also chose to not wear masks while they worked.
Photo by: Claire Hassler/Dispatch Staff
RaeAnne Dove shops for groceries with her kids, from left, Ryder, 4, Abbi, 11, and Max, 9, on Monday at Piggly Wiggly in New Hope. Dove said she thinks wearing a mask should be each person's own choice. "I would be annoyed," she said on if masks became mandated.
Photo by: Claire Hassler/Dispatch Staff
Clarissa Crowell shops with her son, Tyqualan, 14, on Monday at Piggly Wiggly in New Hope. Crowell said she thinks masks should be required in Lowndes County, especially as businesses begin to open up again. Crowell said she forgot her mask in her car.
Photo by: Claire Hassler/Dispatch Staff
July 28, 2020 10:32:17 AM
Lowndes County supervisors passed a resolution Monday morning asking Gov. Tate Reeves to place the county under tighter restrictions -- including a mask mandate -- to help curb the spread of COVID-19.
They did not, however, enact any such restrictions themselves, with some supervisors citing concerns about lawsuits and infringing upon citizens' rights.
Under the state-issued restrictions, which are already in effect in 29 other counties, Lowndes residents -- unless with health conditions that make mask-wearing infeasible -- would have to wear masks in retail stores and other businesses except when eating, drinking or exercising. They would also have to wear masks when attending public events where social distancing is impossible, such as those at sports complexes and arenas.
Social gatherings would also be limited to 10 or fewer indoors and 20 or fewer outdoors, with the exception of church and classroom gatherings, according to Reeves' executive order last week. The order will expire next Monday unless otherwise extended.
Supervisors' call for state intervention came as the number of COVID-19 cases in the county continues to surge. The county saw the number of infections jump from 548 on July 11 to 811 on Saturday, the latest when data is available from the Mississippi State Department of Health.
The state-issued restrictions are necessary for counties that have either seen 200 new cases in the past two weeks or 500 cases per 100,000 residents during the same time span, Reeves has said. Although Lowndes County saw an increase of 263 cases in the two weeks beginning July 11, the governor has not placed the county under restrictions.
Reeves told The Dispatch Monday afternoon the state issued its most recent county restrictions last week based on case numbers between June 30 and July 13. Lowndes County did not meet the threshold during that period, he said, but he will examine new data this week to determine if the uptick allows for the county to join others.
Meanwhile, Reeves said, the county has every right to implement its own mandate.
"There is no law which forbids Lowndes County supervisors from having a mask mandate if that's what they choose to do," he said. "While I appreciate them asking me to do it, they certainly have the ability to be the 'bad guy' too."
Reeves added that he recommends mask-wearing during the pandemic even if the government does not require it.
"Regardless of what I write on an executive order, regardless of what the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors write or ask anyone to do," Reeves said, "if you are in Lowndes County, you should wear a mask."
If the governor does not put Lowndes County on his list of restricted counties, the county will work to pass its own ordinances mandating mask-wearing at its next meeting Aug. 3, said District 3 Supervisor John Holliman, who presides over board meetings as the vice president.
"That will cut down on our liability," said Holliman, explaining why he favored asking the governor first before implementing a mandate on the local level. "That way, they can't sue the county because it's a state mandate."
The county's ordinances, if enacted, could model the one city of Columbus passed July 8, Holliman said. Patrons in city-owned facilities and retail stores, restaurants and gyms must wear masks unless they are eating, drinking or exercising.
District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks told The Dispatch the request to Reeves allows the county more time to develop its own ordinances.
"It doesn't preclude us from coming up with our own," he said. "We still got time to analyze the situation. If we need to put something in place, we will."
District 4 Supervisor Jeff Smith, who previously told The Dispatch he thinks the county should be "consistent" with the city in terms of mask requirement, said the county needs to first let the governor decide whether it should tighten COVID-19 restrictions.
"We've already met, unfortunately, one of the criteria that's been used by the state to determine what counties are placed on that list," Smith said. "It makes sense for us to allow the process to run its course."
Concerns about enforcement, infringement on rights
Apart from District 2 Supervisor Trip Hairston, who was out of town Monday, all four supervisors agreed during the meeting mask-wearing is important.
District 1 Supervisor Harry Sanders, however, also presented concerns from one of his constituents over the effectiveness of a mask mandate and the infringement upon citizen rights.
"Please show the public proof, if any, of the benefit(s) to (wearing) masks and restricting group activities," said Angie Thompson, a District 1 voter, in her email to Sanders. "We are dangerously close to a (C)ommunist society. We have freedoms that many soldiers died fighting for! Please think long and hard before you vote."
Sanders refused to comment to The Dispatch on his stance over the claim in the email.
Brooks told The Dispatch he thinks public health supersedes the protection of those rights during a deadly pandemic.
"I recognize that we have to balance the wellbeing of the greater good along individual concerns, and in my mind, the greater good always supersedes the rights of individuals," he said. "We're in a pandemic, people are dying, and I think it's incumbent on us to implement policies to the best of our ability to try and promote the general health of the whole community."
Sanders told other supervisors he is also concerned about the enforceability of a mask mandate.
"I don't know how in the world you are going to enforce it without shutting a lot of businesses," he said during the meeting. "I think if we are going to do anything, I think we just need to follow the governor's (orders), and ... we don't have any control over what the governor says."
Sheriff Eddie Hawkins agreed the mandate will be difficult to enforce.
"We have 517 (square) miles here in the county ... to cover, I've got five deputies on the shift at a time covering those miles," Hawkins said. "To go out and actively look for people not wearing a mask is going to be difficult. But if we get a call to a store that has a problem with someone wearing a mask inside their business, then we'll address that and we will take action."
Brooks told The Dispatch the public does not expect the sheriff's office to conduct patrols around the county to look for people without masks.
"I don't think anyone is expecting them to go around, trying to enforce ... wearing a mask," he said. "Because I'm sure they have other things they need to be doing."
Yue Stella Yu is the local government reporter for The Dispatch. Reach her at 662-328-2424 (ext 106) or follow her on Twitter @StellaYu_Mizzou
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