On a day that COVID-19 cases in Missouri hit record numbers for the second time in less than a week, the Neosho City Council voted first to amend the ordinance in place since March, regulating social distancing and measures intended to prevent the spread of coronavirus, then voted to remove the ordinance completely.
"We can go back to our normal life in Neosho," Mayor Carmin Allen said at the close of the special session.
The proposed amendments would have limited occupancy to local businesses and organizations open to the public to 50% the normal occupancy as specified by fire and building codes. Schools and day care centers were to be exempt. Prior to the Thursday night special section, churches were added to that list.
It would also have prohibited gatherings of 15 or more unless organizers of the gathering had a letter from the Newton County Health Department that approved their virus control strategy. Violations could have been punished under Section 100.130 of the city code with fines up to $500 and jail sentences of up to three months, both as the maximum.
The vote came at a special session of the city council, brought about after local citizens expressed their concerns about the bill at the regular city council meeting earlier in the week. Their major contention was their belief that the new regulations for the ordinance targeted churches and were intended to curtail church attendance.
On Tuesday, Mayor Allen announced that they would not vote and that a special session would be held to allow residents to voice those concerns.
Approximately 150 people, which represents just over 1% of Neosho's 12,000 plus population were on hand at the special session held at the Civic in downtown Neosho. Prior to the meeting, an individual stood outside the main entrance with a "Don't Tread On Me Flag" in prominent display. Those who attended were all ages, some dressed in skirts and suits, others in shorts, jeans and T-shirts. Despite a city mandate in place requiring masks be worn in city buildings, very few in attendance wore marks nor did the council members.
More than twenty had the opportunity to come before council and speak. To speak, the city had required individuals to sign up in advance by calling or emailing the city clerk by 5 p.m. on Thursday.
First to speak was Missouri State Representative Ben Baker (R, 160th district) who is a former council member and mayor of Neosho.
"It seems the purpose is to silence the opposition," Baker said. "The public and their voice has been suppressed and that's troubling."
He questioned the council's limiting each speaker to two minutes and the new policy that to speak at a regular session of city council participants must sign up in advance, by 5 p.m. on the previous Friday.
"You work for us," he reminded the council. "not the other way around."
Another former councilman and mayor, Charles Collinsworth was the second speaker. He compared recent actions by the council to the Founding Fathers, noting that they went to war against oppressive government.
"What this council has done with this bill is opposed to those ideas," he said. "Stop this fool's errand and do not bring anything else up."
Other speaks used words including "ridiculous" and "preposterous" to describe the proposed measures.
Kevin Van Story was among the speakers and talked about the recent Joplin City Council vote to make masks mandatory within Joplin beginning on Saturday.
"Last night, I spent five hours at the Joplin City Council," he said. "I watched fear take hold and fear caused them to pass a mask ordinance. They might as well mandate everyone wear a diaper. How about we live as free people?"
Robb Birch, a member of the city ethics committee, also spoke.
"The very nature of this proposed bill serves as no benefit to our community.
Birch noted that there are two different groups within the community that want to recall Mayor Allen from office.
"I am asking tonight for your immediate resignation, Mr. Mayor."
Another speaker Paige Pogue questioned the fact that council member and current mayor pro temp Angela Thomas attended the meeting virtually.
"It's disturbing for a council member not to be here. There's plenty of space for her to be up there."
Thomas attended both the special session and Tuesday night's council meeting virtually because she has been exposed to COVID-19 and is quarantined while waiting for test results to determine whether or not she is positive for the virus.
Pogue also said, "You have awoken a sleeping giant and I do think you should resign. You don't represent me. You don't represent the churches."
One speaker carried a Bible with her to the microphone and read several Scriptures. Most cited their rights, the Constitution and liberty.
Another led the crowd in reciting the "Our Father" prayer.
Another former councilman and mayor, Richard Davidson, also had his say.
"You've taken the city in the wrong direction," he said. "We don't need you to give us permission to have birthday parties for our kids or to have small Bible studies in our homes."
In a statement read aloud by the city clerk, Eric Ventor, who had to work and could not attend in person, concerns were expressed that Joplin residents who oppose the mask mandate have stated on social media that they will come to Neosho and other locations to shop.
"Some of these people could bring the coronavirus to Neosho."
The vocal crowd laughed and booed his remarks, among the few expressed that did not oppose the ordinance.
In his defense, Allen stated, "This issue of me stepping down has nothing do with this."
Allen did not offer his resignation.
As the council prepared to vote, Allen said, "Speaking for myself, you have moved me in a lot of different ways tonight. I've been working on this for two weeks."
When someone stood up to tell him that her 13-year old who was present texted to ask her if the mayor was a bad man, Allen responded "I'm not a bad man. I have you all here tonight because I want to work with you. The Constitution and Bill of Rights is life and liberty. We're trying to balance life and liberty."
Allen also stated that he has had family members threatened over the issue.
Before the vote, councilman Tom Workman expressed his love for his community.
"I love my town probably more than all of you. I could have left a hundred times but I did not want to leave town. I do want you to know where I stand - I'm with you. I won't resign because I love this town."
At times, the crowd both cheered and jeered. Shouted comments punctuated the event including, "If you let God down, you're letting the Devil in." All began chanting "Vote, Vote, Vote" as the council prepared to vote.
The council voted 4-0 against the proposed ordinance.
"We can go back to our normal life in Neosho," Allen said. "I'm going to leave it to the Governor (Mike Parson) to make decisions."
Missouri Governor Parson has stated he has no plans to close the state again despite a rising number of COVID-19 in the state. On Thursday, the cases hit a record number of 795 in a single day, bringing the mortality rate in Missouri to 4.04%. The national rate is 4.33%.
Over the past seven days, the number of confirmed positive cases in the state has increased by 8.4%.
Allen suggested that any residents with remaining concerns about the virus take precautions.
"The Newton County Health Department's recommended precautions remain the same:
It is our recommendation that people avoid large group gatherings, especially if you are at high risk for severe disease. If you are in public, please practice social distancing and please wear facial coverings such as a mask or bandana. DO NOT leave your house if you are sick, unless your seeking medical attention. Remember that symptoms can range from mild/moderate to severe. Even with mild symptoms, you can still pass the virus to someone else who can become very ill. We must all practice personal responsibility to keep each other safe. Cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing, do not touch your mouth, eyes, or nose. Please wash your hands frequently."