The Neosho City Council met on Tuesday evening in special session to discuss the current COVID-19 situation in the city and county along with a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with area health partners. The MOU creates a partnership within the local community to develop strategies to respond to COVID-19 cases in local schools, churches, industries and businesses to reduce spread and minimize risk. As part of that, a number of health care representatives were on hand including Larry Bergner, Administrator at the Newton County Health Department, Don McBride, ACCESS Health Care, Renee Denton, CEO at Freeman Neosho, Dr. Robert McNab, a Director of the Freeman COVID Unit, and Dr. Eric Martin, Freeman Health System. Martin spent time treating COVID patients at Coney Island Hospital in Brooklyn, NY earlier this year.

"We're here to find a way to help our community fight it (Coronavirus)", Neosho Mayor Carmin Allen said as the meeting began.

The first speaker was Larry Berner, Newton County Health Department Administrator.

"Our public health message is we should avoid large gatherings, especially if you are high risk," Bergner said. "Wear a mask and social distance as much as possible. This is the reality - we are seeing a significant spike in illness. How can we best defeat the virus? It's by taking responsibility."

He noted that many of the current cases in the area involve individuals between 18 and 44 years of age. Berner outlined the preventative steps that can be done by all citizens, then noted, "We need a good dose of common sense."

Resistance to wearing masks expressed by some, specially on social media, prompted council member Angela Thomas to say, "It's not a matter of your rights, it's your responsibility".

Berner noted that many older and at risk citizens wear masks but some younger individuals don't which can set up a scenario where they could bring the virus home to parents and grandparents.

Dr. McNab, COVID-Unit director, said, "I hate to be the bearer of bad news."

He stated that the unit is at capacity and patients are being diverted to other regional hospitals. The rising numbers affect available resources. It's cutting into other resources we need."

After hearing from the various representatives, the Neosho City Council agreed to raise occupancy limits for local retail businesses from 25% to 50% and to raise the number of small gatherings from 10 to 15, to allow for large family groups.

Educating the public about the ongoing need for preventative measures was also discussed.

"We have to protect our small businesses and citizens," Allen stated. "We have to navigate through this as a team, city, county, state. This is a serious thing."

The possibility of using available electronic signage to post messages urging mask use was considered.

Large gatherings were discussed. The annual Newton County Fair is slated to be held next week in Neosho. Three members of the fair board were present.

The fair will be held July 8-11 at the Newton County Fairgrounds. This year, however, there will be some extra precautions to promote social distancing and to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Signage for social distance will be place. There will be a number of hand washing stations at the fairground, particularly around the barn areas. Restrooms at the fair, normally cleaned twice each day, will be cleaned five times a day.

Although Mayor Allen expressed concerns about the carnival that will set up at the fairgrounds during the event, it was determined that any carnival or other recreational activity that comes to town will need to check in with the health department and get a letter stating that they have no current coronavirus cases. They also will need to purchase a business license as well. The carnival staff will be expected to follow social distancing and to wear masks.

Discussion of whether or not to hold the annual Fall Festival in October brought in Paul Richardson, a former Neosho City events and promotion director, proprietor of In Sane Marketing Solutions. Richardson currently does some contract work for the city, who sought his opinion about whether or not to proceed with the festival.

"We can't plan for the future when we don't know what this (virus) will be in October, not until we get COVID under control," he said. "I don't think it's a good idea at this time but the city has to make the decision."

He pointed out that while an event can survive cancellation, it's difficult to come back from what he termed "a bad event" or one that is downsized. Neosho has already cancelled the annual Bluegrass and Barbecue event normally held in August. Area communities have cancelled various events including the Marian Days event held each year in Carthage, Maple Leaf Festival, also in Carthage, and Jesse James Days in Pineville.

A decision about the Fall Festival is anticipated as early as next week.

In the meantime, the city urged citizens to practice social distancing, to wear masks, and to utilize sanitization methods including both hand washing and the use of sanitizers.

The Neosho City Council will meet in regular session on Tuesday, July 7. Tuesday's special session was held at The Civic to better have social distancing measures in place.