MARYVILLE, Mo. — Forced to choose between two outcomes City Council members had deemed dangerous, the Maryville City Council voted 4-1 Monday to close the streets for Thursday’s Downtown Trick or Treat event, opting to keep trick-or-treaters safe from oncoming traffic.
But the danger of COVID-19, council members said, remains, especially with an event that has remained largely unchanged from last year despite federal guidance on trick or treating and pleas from the council. Some council members indicated the decision was made more difficult because of the event’s lack of insurance, and cited serious concerns over thin safety protocols that did not include providing masks, temperature checks or even a full list of participants for contact tracing purposes.
Although the council recommended last month that two major Halloween events not go forward, and had hoped that a refusal to close the city’s streets would discourage the Downtown Trick or Treat from being held, council members found themselves staring down the dangers of the event happening anyway, and without any liability insurance to boot.
“The Maryville Pride Lions had agreed to host, sponsor and otherwise provide insurance for the event,” said Kathy Rice, the event’s organizer, at Monday’s meeting. “And, due to negative publicity and their fear of retribution from the City Council, they backed out of the sponsorship. So that left me scrambling for private liability insurance, which, I found out, I cannot afford. … So, basically, we do not have insurance for this event.”
Rice is also the president of the Maryville Pride Lions.
City Manager Greg McDanel said that in previous years, the city has partnered with Rice to hold the event and provided liability insurance. He also warned that if the city did not provide insurance this year, that did not mean the city couldn’t also be sued if someone were injured on a city street, putting the council in a difficult position.
By voting to close the streets, McDanel said, the event became sanctioned by the city and it assumed liability.
The decision came after a lengthy discussion that laid bare the frustration from some council members at the seeming lack of cooperation from Rice, who they have said did not attempt to work with the city to adjust the event’s parameters. In a press release earlier this month, Rice said that she has recommended to participants that they set up outside, wear masks and place candy directly into children’s bags. Gloves or hand sanitizer and social distancing are also recommended, but none of the above are required.
“All I can do is recommend,” Rice said. “That’s life. We can only recommend.”
Council member Tye Parsons pointed out that the city’s mask ordinance, which went into effect in July, requires anyone outside in groups of 10 or more to wear masks, something not included in any of the event’s promotional materials. Rice said she was not aware of that provision of the ordinance.
“I wanted to see in the article (in the Nodaway News Leader) and in your press releases that a requirement for attending this event is to wear a mask,” Parsons said.
Additionally, placing candy directly into children’s bags is not the method preferred by the CDC. According to the agency’s guidance, even one-way trick or treating with individually wrapped goodie bags — prepared by someone who has washed their hands before and after preparing each bag — is labeled as a “moderate risk activity.” Instead, Thursday’s event is largely akin to door-to-door trick or treating or a trunk-or-treat, both of which the agency labels “high risk activities.”
“I think I have taken every precaution I can on getting the word out and trying to make people think,” Rice said.
For the first time this year, because the event was initially going to use third-party insurance, the council requested a list of signatures from participating businesses. The list was submitted sometime Monday afternoon and not immediately available to the public. Council member Rachael Martin said that the signatures from some businesses participating in the event were missing, including one from Rice’s employer, the Nodaway News Leader.
“One of the things that has always concerned me, no matter what year it is, is that when we’re closing the streets, our downtown businesses are one, aware, and two, in support of what we’re doing,” Martin said. “I noticed (some signatures were) missing, and that made me worry a little.”
Rice said that she had scrambled to get the signatures, something that was required for the first time this year. In prior years, the city had not required such a list because it had partnered with Rice and provided insurance, which was not the intention this year.
Both Martin and Parsons also said they were concerned about contact tracing for the event after Rice said she couldn’t be sure of which organizations and businesses were actually going to participate, and that she would not require any kind of sign-in sheet from them or trick-or-treaters.
“So the same way that you can only recommend that people take the safest route, we recommended that this event not continue for those same reasons: that it’s a huge safety concern,” Martin told Rice, adding that tracking down so many people could make the health department’s job in any contact tracing scenario more difficult.
But Rice said that it was unlikely most people would qualify as a close contact, which requires being within six feet for 15 minutes.
“No one at this event is going to be … close to someone for 15 minutes over the two-hour period (of the event),” Rice said. “The only people that they’re going to be close to in the two-hour period is going to be the people they came with, if they’re a trick-or-treater, or the people that they brought with them to hand out the goodies.”
She also said that she had looked into providing masks for anyone who wanted one, but did not go through with it. The city volunteered to provide Rice with masks to hand out to participants.
“I honestly expect fewer children and families (this year), I really do,” Rice said. “Because I think that parents are going to weigh the whatever and decide to stay home. So, I don’t think that we’re going to have as many.”
In the paperwork submitted to the council for the street closure, Rice estimated attendance of anywhere from 500 to 2,500.
“We need to be starting to work on methods of maintaining a new normal and everything,” Rice said. “There’s no guarantee that next year … COVID-19 will be over. I think we’re going to be dealing with it for quite a while. We need to work on a new normal, we need to work on, how can we still do things and have a quality of life and cope with this?
“This has always been about Maryville. … It’s always been about Maryville, it’s always been about showcasing Maryville. … Because, honestly, people drive through and they never realize what we have a lot of times, but, we get people out walking and they see the businesses that they don’t normally see.”
Rice said that anyone uncomfortable with the event should simply stay home.
“It’s a personal choice. No one is making you be a treat person for this, no one is making you bring your family or your kids to this,” she said. “If you don’t feel it’s right for you this year, then please stay home. And also … I asked (parents), if they or their children are feeling ill, that they also please stay home.”
Council member Jason McDowell said that the age group involved generally had not contracted the virus as much as other age groups.
“This event is also geared towards the age group with the lowest number of cases out of any age group, besides the 90-99 age group, so that’s reassuring also,” McDowell said.
According to the online Nodaway County COVID-19 dashboard, compiled with information from the Nodaway County Health Department, the 0-9 age group has accounted for 25 positive tests in the county, the second-lowest of any group, as McDowell said. The 10-19 age group has accounted for the second-highest number of positive tests, 231.
Parsons took issue with both statements, saying that it’s not just the people who attend the event who are put at risk.
“It gives me a little bit of heartburn to say that, ‘oh, they’re just kids, they’re going to be OK,’” Parsons said. “However, the data also shows that asymptomatic kids can spread to grandma and grandpa, and that’s my concern. One death is too many, and so if we can do whatever we can to prevent them, I think we should.”
Ultimately, Parsons was the lone dissenting vote, indicating that because a vote to close the streets and providing the city’s insurance for the event would make it a de facto city-sponsored activity, he could not in good conscience vote to do so, calling it a “gross” situation for the city to be put in.
“I would say, if anything, we probably have learned that if the city is not a designated sponsor next year, formally and officially, that it will require third party insurance from a sponsor, so that this isn’t an issue,” McDanel said.
After the lengthy discussion about the event, McDowell made the motion to vote on the street closure, but it remained without a second for nearly 20 seconds of silence until Martin spoke up, bringing it to a vote.
“I just want to say that I don’t think it’s safe to hold the event,” she said to Rice. “However, I don’t think it’s safe to leave the streets open. Because you’re having it anyway. So that’s where I stand on it.
“I hope that everyone stays safe, or that it’s too cold and rainy, and everyone stays home.”