Voluntary or required

Brothers Lloyd, right, and Roger Wilson have different views on mask requirements in St. Joseph. Lloyd thinks they have some benefit, but Roger is more doubtful.

Lloyd Wilson wears a face mask for games of pool with his brother at the Joyce Raye Patterson 50+ Activity Center.

Asked if he’d wear one if it wasn’t required, Wilson pauses to think about it. He isn’t 100% sure they work, but he also doesn’t think it’s an outrageous ask as far as government mandates go.

“If they came out and said you have to wear a tinfoil hat so the aliens couldn’t read your mind, I probably wouldn’t do it,” he said.

For some, a local mask requirement is a life-saving measure. For others, it’s an example of government overreach. Those two views will clash this year when the Missouri Legislature considers multiple measures to restrict the ability of cities, counties and local health departments to require face coverings during a health emergency.

“As the COVID outbreak grew, the government reaction was unlike anything we’ve ever seen before,” said state Rep. J. Eggleston, R-Maysville. “How much government is acceptable? How much is too much? In 2020, I received way more questions and concerns, about government overreach, against a mandate.”

Eggleston filed House Bill 566, a measure that would prevent a government entity — which includes cities, counties, local health departments and school districts — from requiring face masks during a statewide health emergency. In Missouri, the current emergency designation runs until March.

His bill also prohibits local governments from requiring testing, mandating a coronavirus vaccine or requiring a person or entity to participate in contact tracing.

Eggleston acknowledges that his bill is not necessarily the final version of what could pass during the session.

“On the total freedom vs. oppression scale, HB 566 is written toward the total freedom end,” he said.

After a statewide stay-at-home order expired in early May, Gov. Mike Parson has largely deferred to local communities on mask mandates, occupancy limits and other measures intended to mitigate spread of the coronavirus. In St. Joseph, the city issued a limited mask mandate in July and then extended it to all indoor public spaces until Feb. 14.

Bryan Carter, who is expected to become the interim city manager at Monday’s council meeting, believes local communities should have some discretion in determining a response to the pandemic, as opposed to a one-size-fits-all approach from the state capital.

“The local authority has proven pretty valuable,” he said. “From what I’ve understood, there are some trends occurring in different parts of the state. It’s given us some flexibility.”

The question state lawmakers will consider is whether that ultimate decision shouldn’t rest with state or local governments but with the individual, or whether the benefits of masks outweigh the limit on personal freedom.

The philosophical force behind Eggleston’s bill is that health decisions — whether to wear a mask, provide your identity for contact tracing or get a vaccine — are best left to the individual, with the government’s role only to provide advice and information.

“The ultimate decision-maker is the citizen,” Eggleston said.

Would St. Joseph residents wear masks if it was only strongly encouraged? Roger Wilson, playing pool with his brother at the Joyce Patterson center, has an emphatic answer.

“I wear it because I have to,” he said.

Carter said he isn’t sure how much of mask compliance is due to the mandate and threat of enforcement. He also has some concerns about local authorities being hamstrung if they can’t enforce mitigation measures during a pandemic — and the state refuses to do so.

“Having said that, there’s certainly an understanding to make sure that restrictions remain reasonable,” he said.

Maria Burnham, coordinator of health services for the St. Joseph School District, believes voluntary mask compliance would be high in the schools because those students who chose in-person learning really want to be inside the building. She has concerns about another element of HB 566, one that changes the criteria for a parent opting out of the immunization requirement for sending a child to a Missouri school.

Current law requires all children to be immunized before attending school, with an exception for medical reasons or a religious objection. Eggleston’s bill removes the religious exemption and simply allows parents to opt out if they wish.

Right now, less than 1% of St. Joseph public school students have an immunization waiver. Burnham said any decrease in immunization rates doesn’t just increase the risk for student whose parents make that choice. There are some with compromised immune systems or cancer who can’t get immunized. They are counting on the broader herd immunity.

“That’s one part (of the bill) where you will see groups come out and challenge this,” she said.

Eggleston’s bill has not been referred to a committee this year. In past sessions, state lawmakers have shown that they will limit the authority of local government on some health matters. In 2019, the Legislature passed and the governor signed into law a bill that prohibits counties from enacting health regulations on large hog farms that are stronger than the state standards.

Greg Kozol can be reached at greg.kozol@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NPNowKozol.