Ozark County officials discuss how new order, ‘Stay Home Missouri,’ impacts residents here
The Ozark County Commissioners held their usual weekly meeting Monday morning in an unusual place – the second-floor courtroom in the Ozark County Courthouse. Mindful of the Centers for Disease Control directive to maintain a 6-foot distance between each other and have no more than 10 people in any one gathering during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, the commissioners needed more space to spread out than in their usual cramped office next door, where all three sit at desks pushed together facing a too-close row of chairs against the wall.
Ozark County Health Department administrator Rhonda Suter and OCHD environmentalist Craig Fox also attended the meeting, along with Ozark County Emergency Manager Curtis Ledbetter and Ozark County Circuit Clerk and Recorder Becki Strong.
Suter told the Times Tuesday that Ozark County has no reported cases of COVID-19. Twenty-four people here have been tested; 22 are negative, and 2 tests are pending. These numbers of confirmed cases with positive test results have been reported in adjoining counties: Howell, 3; Taney, 8; Douglas, 0; Baxter County (Arkansas), 3. Statewide, 2,722 cases have been confirmed, and 39 deaths have occurred.
Last week, the commissioners issued an appeal to Ozark Countians to stay home and “self-shelter” in an attempt to curb the spread of the potentially deadly virus, which at press time Tuesday had struck nearly 331,000 Americans and caused 8,910 deaths. Online sources on Tuesday reported 1.3 million cases worldwide with 74,793 deaths; according to the source, 286,490 COVID-19 patients have recovered worldwide.
Ozark County Clerk Brian Wise live-streamed Monday’s commission meeting through the Ozark County Facebook page. Viewers could watch the meeting live; the recording of the meeting can be viewed anytime at facebook.com/ozarkcounty.
While the commissioners’ earlier shelter-at-home appeal was voluntary, the “Stay at Home Missouri” order issued Friday by Gov. Mike Parson is not. At Monday’s meeting, county officials discussed what was considered an “essential business” under the state and CDC guidelines. (A graphic outlining the components of the governor’s order can be found on the Ozark County Times Facebook page. )
Responding to queries they had received, the officials agreed that two of the county’s biggest manufacturers in the county, Wilson Industries (formerly Bryant Plastics) and Giles & Kendall cedar products, meet the governor’s parameters for essential businesses. However, Suter noted that even businesses and manufacturers in the county that are considered essential and are remaining open are still required to maintain social distancing and groups no greater than 10 people, with variances depending on a building’s square footage.
Almost all offices in the area are operating behind closed doors, doing business primarily by phone and meeting individual customers, when necessary, at the door or delivering papers, goods or other items to customers in vehicles.
“Residents are supposed to stay home unless they have to go out for essential things,” Western Commissioner Greg Donley said. “I think most of us know to use common sense and not be doing anything extra.”
Continuing their discussion of queries that had come in, Presiding Commissioner John Turner noted that the Lost Woods Golf Course in Theodosia is still open and so is Hoerman Memorial Park in Gainesville; however, he said, the children’s play-space equipment has been roped off. (Gainesville city clerk Lisa Goodnight also announced Monday that the city council had closed the restrooms in the park.)
The officials noted that gun shops are among the businesses considered essential. “They can sell guns and ammo, but no other stuff,” Suter said.
Turner also brought up the idea of recreation on Ozark County rivers, especially the matter of outfitters who frequently haul busloads of floaters to put-in or take-out points. The commissioners agreed to consider that matter a little later, as floating season and river traffic get busier. Turner noted that Ozark County rivers can’t be closed like the Buffalo River in Arkansas, which is a national river under the direction of the National Park Service.
The officials noted that individual counties are not allowed to ignore or ease state and CDC directives related to the stay-at-home order, but they are allowed to make any directive “stricter.” Ozark County has done that in only one category. Suter said the governor’s directives allow restaurants to let customers use dining rooms if social distancing and group size limits are maintained, but Ozark County is directing all restaurants to close their dining rooms and serve food only through take-out and delivery. Suter said she’s been in contact with all the restaurants, “and they’re all already doing this. They know it’s important, and they want to stay safe, just like the rest of us do.”
The group members agreed on the seriousness of the pandemic. “I know it’s rough now, but we’re doing all right,” Donley said. “It’s nothing like what our grandparents may have gone through, but it’s something like we’ve never seen. Hopefully our economy doesn’t get too far down hill that we can’t get it back.”
Donley added that the pandemic “has changed our way of life – and could change our way of life from now on.”
No marriage licenses during stay-home order
Becki Strong told the commissioners she has decided not to issue marriage licenses during the pandemic and outlined how she had come to that decision. Later, she explained the decision to the Times. “Our office doesn’t get many requests for marriage licenses,” she said, “but last Thursday, a couple who live in western Ozark County called to ask about a marriage license. They actually live closer to Forsyth, but Taney County told them they’re not issuing marriage licenses now. So they called us.”
Strong told the couple yes, her office is still issuing marriage licenses. She told them the courthouse doors are kept locked now but they could call the number on the door, and someone from her office would bring the application to them and they could sit at a table in the hallway to fill it out. The couple agreed to come on Tuesday, she said.
Then, later that day, another couple called and said they too, had first inquired about getting a marriage license in Taney County, and they had been told that Ozark County was still issuing them. Strong confirmed it, and the couple agreed to come Friday.
But that night, Strong said she thought to herself, “Oh my gosh, Taney County is telling people we’re issuing marriage licenses.” Checking online listings of Missouri recorders, she realized many counties in the area are not doing marriage licenses during the pandemic, and “I could see that snowballing really fast,” said.
Afraid her office would be overwhelmed by people coming from outside the area, she called back the two couples Friday morning and apologized but said her office couldn’t issue their marriage licenses after all.
“I feel bad, because some couples have big weddings planned, I know, and this makes it hard for them, but I just don’t want to have things snowball here,” she said, adding that, for now, “it’s really a day-by-day decision as we work with other county officials on how to make the best choices.”
The online listing she consulted did not show Greene County as having announced it’s not doing marriage licenses, she said, so that might still be a possibility for couples wishing to marry soon, she said.
Meanwhile, she noted, divorces can be filed online, “and if both parties agree, they can go through with it without even going to court.”
A big part of most real estate transactions can also be handled through e-recording, she said, and, as previously reported, many of the simpler court proceedings area also being handled electronically now using video streaming between the judge and the defendant.