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Rolla Enacts Mask Mandate As Coronavirus Cases Surge And Overwhelm Hospital

Phelps-Maries County Health Department Director Ashley Want addresses the Rolla City Council, advocating for a mask mandate.
Phelps-Maries County Health Department Director Ashley Wann addresses the Rolla City Council, advocating for a mask mandate.

ROLLA — Starting Friday, Rolla residents will have to wear masks in all public places, follow social distancing guidelines and limit large venues to 25% capacity.

The city council approved the rules on a 9-3 vote at a special meeting Monday night that included more than two hours of heated and divided public comment.

“Employees like mine will get displaced by this, because there is not enough revenue and business coming in to provide them an income,” said Rob Webster, owner of Rob and Cricket’s Tater Patch, a Rolla restaurant.

While some small-business owners and residents challenged the proposal, members of the health community painted a picture of a medical system at its breaking point.

Ed Clayton, CEO of Phelps Medical Center, said the intensive care unit in Rolla’s only hospital has been filled with COVID-19 patients for 10 days and has diverted local patients to other hospitals, in and out of state.

“Make no mistake, we are overwhelmed,” Clayton said.

Several doctors and public health officials implored the council to pass the restrictions.

“Masks are not the end all, be all,” said Ashley Wann, director of the Phelps-Maries County Health Department. “The mask is part of the puzzle if used correctly, consistently, and in conjunction with other mitigation strategies.”

Phelps County had limited exposure to the coronavirus early in the year, with cases in the single digits for months. But over the past six weeks, active cases doubled to more than 500, and deaths increased from 16 to 42.

Council member Marie Allen voted for the measure and said asking people to do the right thing isn’t enough.

“We’ve been recommending strongly that people show personal responsibility for how many months is it now? And the hospital is overrun. They are standing in front of us saying, ‘We cannot care for this community,’” Allen said.

The new rules begin at 6 a.m. Friday and are to remain in effect until Feb. 2.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

Jonathan Ahl is the Newscast Editor and Rolla correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.