Polk County's next step allows for bigger mass gatherings, schools to open

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BOLIVAR, Mo.-- Polk County will enter the next phase of its recovery plan on Thursday (May 21) with the biggest change being more people allowed at mass gatherings.

Previously the limit was 50 but now it's 150.

As of Wednesday Polk County has had only two COVID-19 cases with one of those travel-related.

"We've been blessed that we've only had two cases," said Michelle Morris, Polk County's Health Center Administrator. "As people start to move more and are out in their communities there is some expectation that we'll see more cases. But one component of our reopening plan is that we have testing that's available quickly so if we do identify a case, we can identify it quickly and go to the isolation and quarantine of that case and any of their contacts to help control the spread."

Many of the 40-50 churches in Polk County will be holding their first in-person services this weekend although some are waiting until June. Churches were allowed to have in-house worship services starting on Mother's Day but most of them decided to wait.

"It was all about yes, we can meet but should we meet," said Matt Bunn, the Pastor of The Heights Church in Bolivar who served as a liaison between the health task force and area religious leaders. "We wanted to see as the state was opening how the virus would react and see if it would expand. In our county we've now moved to Phase Two and so we feel more comfortable now in opening up our doors. "

Mass gathering limitations do not apply to churches but social distancing requirements must still be followed.

Common practices that may occur with worship services, such as hand shaking and shared communion cups, are to be avoided. But even with these restrictions the ability to once again gather for fellowship is a major step for any community's feeling of getting back to normal.

"The ability to be able to meet together with people who are like-minded, to get hope and peace, now more than ever we need that gathering of God's people," Bunn said.

All schools are permitted to reopen in the county as well. In Bolivar the high school will hold virtual classes for its summer sessions but the lower grades will be back on campus.

"Some of them will be alternating schedules coming on Monday-Wednesday and others on Tuesday-Thursday," Morris explained. "Then they'll have on-line learning on Fridays. We've talked to the schools about making class sizes smaller, making sure desks are spaced six-feet apart and facing in the same direction. Good hygiene, proper cleaning, just a lot of modifications put in place for the schools."

The latest order also relaxes occupancy restrictions by putting the emphasis on maintaining six-foot spacing.

"For some of the businesses in he county they don't necessarily know what their occupancy rates were so we just really tried to focus on social distancing," Morris said. "Once you reach the capacity where you can't keep people six-feet-apart, you need to ask people to wait outside."

And for places like barber shops and hair salons where social distancing can't be maintained, the guidelines for Polk County are the same as most other places.

"We ask them to wear the masks," Morris said. "And a lot of them are also taking the temperatures of their clients."

The latest order also reiterates that all vulnerable individuals should continue to shelter in place. Members of households with vulnerable residents should be aware that by returning to work or other environments where distancing is not practical, they could carry the virus back home.

Visits to senior living facilities and hospitals should also be prohibited.