CUBA, Mo. — Missouri kept breaking coronavirus records this week, but it was hard to notice in rural areas like this one near the center of the Show-Me State.
As usual, buyers and sellers gathered inside a small, half dome at the Interstate Regional Stockyards to compete for the best cattle prices. The market played out amid the loud call of an auctioneer, and the occasional slap of the knee or cough that could signal another high bid for a calf.
At one point Tuesday afternoon, 35 people sat in the audience, some at a distance, others in groups. No one, including the employees, wore masks to potentially slow the spread of COVID-19.
They support Republican Gov. Mike Parson’s view of freedom on the matter. They trust people to stay home who don’t feel well or to quarantine if they’ve been exposed to the virus.
“It’s not like in St. Louis,” said Scott Abolt, owner of the auction. “We are all friends and family. We work together. We go to church together, and we watch out for each other. That’s what it’s all about.”
Even still, there’s a sense of the inevitable.
“We all feel like we are all going to catch it before it’s over with,” said Abolt.
Early on in the pandemic, taking major precautions against the spread of COVID-19 in rural Missouri seemed particularly extreme and costly to local economies. The case numbers were very low, similar to U.S. cities that were slow to respond before the virus expanded beyond China.
Even though it still can be hard to see the toll in this town of 3,400 people, the coronavirus has arrived in Cuba, 85 miles southwest of St. Louis. There have been 10 deaths and nearly 900 cases in the broader area of Crawford County, including 130 cases in the past seven days.
For the first time, Cuba public schools were closed all week to in-class learning, students said.
“I realize this situation creates a hardship for several of our families,” Superintendent Jonathan Earnhart wrote in a letter to parents and guardians. “I am sorry for that, but we do not have enough staff to feed our students, properly sanitize our facilities, or supervise every classroom effectively.”
A total of 185 staff and students were quarantined the week of Oct. 23 and 70 the following week. More recent numbers weren’t available on the schools’ website. Students apparently had been required to wear masks in the hallways but not in class.
Follow-up questions were referred to Earnhart. He refused to discuss the situation with the Post-Dispatch.
Sixteen-year-old Nate Randell spoke up. The Cuba High student was one of just a handful of shoppers wearing a mask at Mace Supermarket, a large grocery store here.
“We need to be wearing masks,” Randell said. “Just leaving it up to people, a lot of people don’t wear masks. We are just going to keep spreading it.”
At one count, three out of 35 customers wore face coverings. The store provides masks for employees, but few use them.
Pat Boswell, pushing a cart through the meat aisle, said she supported the people’s right to choose. She chose not to wear a mask this day.
“I am 89 years old,” she said. “I am going to die of something at some point.”
Not that the matriarch of an enormous family has a death wish. The former newspaper delivery person doesn’t like to be pushed around by hysteria.
“I refuse to live in fear,” she said.
Mike Campbell, 72, who stopped in at the grocery store on the way home to his farm from the cattle auction, said he also agreed with the governor’s position to not enforce a statewide mask mandate.
“We don’t breathe the same air as people in the city,” Campbell said. “We can be distanced.”
Besides, he said, media have blown the pandemic out of proportion, past the point of credibility. He said he’d recently visited with the member of an Amish community in central Missouri about the coronavirus.
“Nobody got it,” Campbell, half joking, said the man told him. “We don’t watch TV.”
Face masks "combined with other preventive measures," like hand-washing and social distancing, help slow the spread of the coronavirus, says the Mayo Clinic. A mask traps droplets that are released by the person wearing it.
"Asking everyone to wear cloth masks can help reduce the spread of the virus by people who have COVID-19 but don’t realize it,” says the clinic, widely considered to be one of the best hospitals in the country.
Yet in Missouri, mask wearing tends to fall along political lines.
During a special session of the Legislature earlier this week, Democrats in the House wore masks, while about half of the Republicans wore masks as they sat shoulder-to-shoulder in the House chamber.
As part of an upcoming tour of the state by newly elected members of the House, organizers are going to lease two buses, one where masks are required and one with no mask mandate.
Asked Thursday if he would intervene and call on members of the House and Senate to wear masks while in the Capitol, Parson said that is a decision legislative leaders must make.
He issued an urgent plea for people to be responsible, but also stood by his decision not to issue a statewide mask mandate, saying the issue should be decided by local leaders.
"That's why you have elections. It's the purest form of democracy, for them to be able to make those decisions," Parson said.
Crawford County Democratic Party Chairman Terry West recalled a meet-the-candidates event held at the Cuba High School gymnasium in the leadup to the recent election that was well-attended.
“It was as clear as night and day,” he said. “The few Democrats who were there were the only ones wearing masks.”
He said the Republicans stared at them, made them feel like “oddballs” for wearing masks.
“It’s going to have to hit home for them before they get the picture, as far as I can tell,” said West, 44, a contractor. “We do have a lot cases. I know people who had it and got very sick from it.”
Religion is a factor, too, he said.
“They kind of believe God is on their side,” he said.
Some are emboldened by Republican President Donald Trump, who, after getting COVID-19, “came out stronger, raring to go,” said Vanita King, who knows somebody well in Crawford County who tested positive for the disease.
“It wasn’t as bad as they make it out to be,” said King, 46, adding: “Hopefully you have a good immune system to fight it off.”
There is a mask requirement at City Hall, but Cuba Mayor Cody Leathers, 33, said he would not use his power to expand the restriction citywide. Like pressure he’s faced to create a smoking ban, he wants consumers and business owners to make their own decisions regarding COVID-19.
“We have left Cuba open to business,” Leathers said of the town, home to 26 factories and a hot spot for tourists coming through from all over to enjoy nearby rivers. “We don’t want to restrict any of that.”
Kurt Erickson of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report from Jefferson City.