SEDALIA, Mo. (KMIZ)
Masks were few and social distancing largely not observed when Gov. Mike Parson appeared Thursday at the first day of a scaled-back Missouri State Fair.
Parson appeared with Missouri State Fair Director Mark Wolfe and state Agriculture Director Chris Chinn for a news conference to kick off the event. The fair this year is happening through Aug. 23 but is focused on youth livestock exhibition only because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Parson, Chinn, Wolfe and others eschewed masks and spent time within close distance of each other and shook hands.
Parson and Dr. Randall Williams, Missouri's top public health professional, have repeatedly urged the use of masks and social distancing to slow down the spread of COVID-19 in the state. Parson has said Missourians should wear masks if they feel comfortable doing so, framing it as an issue of personal choice while encouraging their use.
Watch video of the news conference in the player below.
Missouri has seen a summer surge in cases that has also played out in other areas of the nation. The state has recorded 62,530 cases since the pandemic started and has a positive test rate of over 11 percent over the last seven days.
State officials say hospitals, however, are not overburdened with COVID-19 patients. The Missouri Hospital Association reported 861 COVID-19 hospitalizations as of Sunday, the most recent figure available.
Parson has repeatedly said kids should be in school for their mental health and other reasons. He presented a similar message Thursday when talking about the fair.
"Our kids need to be doing something," Parson said. "They need to be out here showing livestock. They need to be together as we move forward in this state. I think all of those things are important. And we can do that. We can do that safely. We’re all smart enough to use a little common sense."
Chinn, who introduced Parson, said the number of livestock exhibitors is up this year despite the smaller scale of the fair. She thanked the state Department of Health and Senior Services for working with the Agriculture Department to present the event "in a way that was safe for you to be here."
“I want to thank you for being here, for sticking with us, and for making sure your children finished what they started,” Chinn said.
She said masks were handed out at the entry gates and hand sanitizing stations were put up around the grounds.
However, few of those at the news conference were wearing masks.
Parson, when asked whether state officials' actions at the news conference present an inconsistent message about masks and social distancing, said he thinks his administration has not wavered in its public communication.
Parson said "from day one" his administration has been consistent in encouraging social distancing, hand hygiene and wearing masks. He stressed the outdoor nature of the event and said he has seen many people who are not in family groups staying apart from each other on the fairgrounds.
Many are not around each other for more than 15 minutes, Parson said.
"We've always suggested wear a mask if you feel comfortable wearing a mask ... we say that all the time," Parson said. "But know, people have ability to make those choices ... and I think they have to make that. They understand what the risks are for their families and their children and you have to let people understand that they have that personal responsibility."
"And I tell you, I think the people of Missouri do have that knowledge to have personal responsibility," he said.
The crowd at the news conference applauded after Parson's statement.
Health experts say wearing masks is one of the most effective tools against spreading the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Some states have implemented orders but Parson's administration has so far shunned calls to do so.
In Mid-Missouri, Columbia's city council approved an ordinance requiring masks and a revised health order requires their use in restaurants when customers are not seated.
The health board in Pettis County, where the fair is located, implemented a mask order last week. That order is the subject of a legal challenge.
Fair organizers have warned participants of the potential risk of contracting COVID-19 at the event. A bulletin on the fair website said going to public places increases the risk of contracting COVID-19 and that the fair "cannot guarantee that you will not be exposed to COVID-19 during your visit."
It also said cleaning and health precautions at the event have been increased.
Check back for more on this developing story or watch ABC 17 News at 5 and 6.