Locals still free to choose masked  or unmasked shopping

   Several cities surrounding Lucedale have implemented policies for mask-wearing in public places to reduce the spread of COVID-19; however, masks are still optional in Lucedale.

   "It ought to be a personal choice. I don't think I'm in a position to mandate masks," Mayor Darwin Nelson said. "We have a strong contingent of firm believers who don't want their rights taken away."

   Nelson added that the Board of Aldermen would have the right to bring up the issue; however, in his opinion the city should follow the lead of Gov. Tate Reeves.

   Nearby metropolises Mobile and Hattiesburg currently require masks in public buildings and stores for both employees and customers. Last week the City of Mobile as well as Mobile County began requiring masks for everyone. Both employees and customers must wear masks in retail shops and businesses. Children under age 10 do not have to wear a mask. Citizens who are found in violation will be offered a free mask by police. If voluntary compliance cannot be achieved, violators are subject to a $50 fine for a first offense and $100 for each subsequent offense. The facial coverings are required not only inside the stores, but also in parking lots, on public transportation and at outdoor athletic events.

   Hattiesburg was the first city in south Mississippi to impose stringent guidelines. Mayor Toby Barker implemented the order for business employees beginning April 10 and for customers beginning May 1. Children under age 6 are exempt as well as anyone with a medical condition for whom wearing a mask is not recommended by their doctor. Businesses are not required to furnish masks to their customers or clients; however, they are required to ensure compliance. Complaints about businesses failing to enforce the rule can be made to City Hall via telephone or social media. For the first offense, the fire marshal delivers a written warning to the business. Subsequent complaints may lead to the business owner or manager being fined up to $500 or up to 60 days in jail by a municipal court judge. Citizens are not punished; instead, the businesses risk being penalized.

   This week Barker extended the order until July 20, but stated on a Twitter video that citizens should be aware that "masks are going to be part of our everyday lives for the foreseeable future." He also reported that between Forrest General and Merit Health Wesley, 51 patients are confirmed with COVID-19 and another 14 are under investigation. Twenty-four patients are in ICU.

   "As of today, our local hospital system now has the highest number of COVID-19 positive patients thus far in the hospital and the ICU," Barker said in a July 7 tweet.

   In neighboring Jackson County, the cities of Pascagoula and Moss Point require masks in all city buildings. Gautier does not require masks. All are requiring both customers and employees to wear masks in barber shops, beauty shops and nail salons in adherence to the governor's order related to grooming shops.

   In neighboring Leakesville mask-wearing is optional. However, it is a topic that city leaders have discussed and may consider due to virus outbreaks in two long-term care facilities that have spread into the community.    Town Clerk Rex Garretson said that town leaders would really appreciate directives from Gov. Reeves and from the State Health Department.

   "We need to lead by science and not politically," Garretson said, noting that epidemiologists at the health department are armed with knowledge about disease distribution and control.

   Masks are required in City Hall and at Board of Aldermen meetings. Aldermen met outdoors wearing masks and socially distancing in the spring months and now meet indoors with restrictions. No more than 10 people are allowed in the board room, which is small. That number includes the aldermen, mayor, city clerk, city attorney and two members of the public at a time. Masks are required to be worn by all in attendance.

   In nearby Beaumont masks have been required since April 4; however, the rule is not enforced. Last week the state's capital city started requiring masks. The City of Jackson is enforcing its order with a $300 fine for citizens who violate the mandate. Businesses face closure if customers are not wearing masks. The City of Oxford also requires masks.

   Medical grade masks are not required in the cities mentioned above. Masks can be made from cloth and should be designed to cover a person's nose and mouth to stop the spread of droplets while talking, coughing and sneezing. The State Health Department and the Center for Disease Control have stated that data proves mask-wearing helps stop the spread of COVID-19.

   Dr. Thomas Dobbs of the Mississippi Department of Health said in a press conference Tuesday afternoon that he is glad to see cities embrace the mask requirement as the state is seeing its highest number of cases and some hospitals are full and therefore are having to send patients to other states. "It's ubiquitous. It's everywhere," Dobbs said. "If you have a sneeze or cough and think it's allergies, it is most likely coronavirus."

   Dobbs said it hurts his heart that so many Mississippians are putting socializing ahead of children and senior citizens as schools grapple with how to open schools next month and long-term care facilities grapple with how to keep their residents and employees safe. He predicts a "rough summer and fall" adding that "we might not come out on the other side of this until next spring.

   "Some people are denying the message," Dobbs said. "Those people are going to be hard to reach until it gets personal to them."

   When asked if a statewide mandate from the governor would be a better option than city by city orders, Dobbs said that shared air is a public health concern like smoking and "we haven't been able to get smoke-free air on the statewide level, but we have been able to get it addressed on local levels."

  Award-winning journalist Nancy Jo Maples has been writing about Mississippi people and places for more than 30 years. Contact her at nancyjomaples@aol.com.

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