CARTHAGE, MO – Seth Thompson learned about COVID-19 early. He’s an engineer in Carthage, Missouri, a town of just under 15,000 that sits along historic Route 66 in the southwest corner of the state. The virus first came to Thompson’s attention in February, when the global firm he works for shut down its offices in China. Back then, the danger seemed remote.
“We were seeing the news. It looked terrible, and it was, but it just wasn’t here yet,” Thompson said.
When Missouri shut down in early April, his county — Jasper — had fewer than 10 confirmed cases. But in June, cases increased dramatically. Now the county has nearly 1,000, with dozens more reported every day.
Thompson’s own daughter is in quarantine after being exposed to the virus at summer school.
“It’s scary. I have older parents, I have friends people who have medical conditions,” Thompson said.
The spike in cases was initially driven by outbreaks at poultry processing plants in this part of Missouri and across the border in northern Arkansas. It pushed Thompson, a city councilman, to take action.
“I just said, ‘The community needs an answer: yes or no.’ We needed an answer on masks,” he said. “People wanted to know how we stood, so I wrote up a bill. I thought it was extremely moderate.”
Thompson’s bill required anyone age six or older to wear masks in public indoor spaces when social distancing was not possible. It did not apply outside or for those with health conditions that would complicate mask-wearing.
But masks have become a polarizing issue, and people in town have reported being harassed for wearing them. Autumn Lawrence-Palmer, a local high school chemistry teacher whose daughter has cystic fibrosis, shared her experience in a Facebook video.
“I came into contact with somebody, I didn’t know who they were and they didn’t have a mask on,” Lawrence-Palmer said. “And they called me a pretty hateful name, and then what they followed up with is that I was what was wrong with society.”
Thompson’s bill faced opposition from some Carthage residents and city council members, who believe the government shouldn’t force people to wear masks.
Craig Diggs works in IT at the local poultry processing plant and, like Thompson, has served on the city council since June. He has a friend who tested positive for COVID-19.
But Diggs believes wearing a mask should be a personal choice. He says government regulations should reflect social norms, and he isn’t comfortable forcing people to wear masks.
“I believe that as long as we produce the communication and the education, then it’s the right of the public to wear or not wear a mask,” he said.
Diggs opposed the mask ordinance, which was voted down 5 to 4.
Thompson thinks a lot of the opposition comes down to one thing: People in this part of the country don’t like being told what to do.
At least one business owner is taking action on her own. Heather Orscheln owns Revel Boutique, a modern clothing shop on the south side of town. She started requiring masks in her shop at the end of June.
“Asking people to wear a mask, it’s not about you’re taking away somebody’s right to do something. It’s just a respect issue,” she said.
University of Georgia Public Relations professor Glen Nowak says laws are often necessary to change behavior. The former media relations director for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points to school immunization requirements as one example.
“Voluntary compliance with the childhood immunization schedule typically got you to like 75 or 80% of parents complying,” he said. “Many of the others weren’t necessarily opposed to vaccination but they just found it to be inconvenient.”
Today there’s no unified messaging from the federal government on masks, Nowak said. He cites President Trump’s reluctance to wear a mask in public as a major factor.
“I think that quickly turned into wearing a mask or not wearing a mask indicates your support for the president,” he said.
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, also has resisted wearing a mask in public.
In Carthage, Thompson thinks some residents would be swayed if the president regularly wore a mask. But for now, the council is focused on educating the public. After voting down the mask bill, the council created a community task force on the issue. No meetings have been scheduled yet.
This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.