This is the tale of two license offices on the same floor — only 17 steps apart (I counted) — in the state office building on Springfield’s downtown square.
One requires employees to wear mask. The other doesn’t.
Reader Julie Schulze alerted me to a problem she had last week in the license office in Room No. 252. She sent me an email on Wednesday, Nov. 4:
“I am a senior, so I plan my excursions to avoid crowded places where I might potentially be exposed to SARS-Cov-2. I called ahead and was told the Public Square location had the least customer traffic. I arrived at 8 a.m. with a mask on only to discover that no one else in the office was wearing one and there was no evidence of social distancing.
“Springfield has a citywide mask mandate, so I assumed masks would be required. When I asked why no one was wearing one, a clerk responded, ‘It is a state building and state overrules local.'”
In response to that email, I went there later in the day and Julie is right.
I saw three workers — who were behind a plexiglass shield — and none wore a mask.
It’s not that they had a mask around their neck. Or they had a mask that was not covering their nose. Or they had a mask that was on the counter in front of them.
I saw no masks.
I spoke to office manager Rebecca Foote. She said that since the office was in a state building and the state does not have a mask mandate, no one needed to wear a mask — despite the city’s mask law requiring that you wear one in public places.
(I should point out that the city’s mask law is not being enforced, something I pointed out in a Sept. 10 column. I visited eight stores and learned that although the stores have signs that say face coverings are “required” or “must” be worn and employees will quickly tell you it’s a city ordinance — the truth of the matter is that you will be allowed to shop there without wearing a mask.)
In fact, Foote tells me, the city ordinance also does not apply to federal and Greene County buildings.
I should mention that the sign on the door to the state office building says, “Wear face coverings at all times when social distancing cannot be maintained.”
I called city spokeswoman Cora Scott and asked: Is it true that the city mask requirement does not apply in buildings owned or operated by the federal, state or Greene County governments?
She sent me an email:
“Let’s start with federal and state. Case law is clear that state and federal buildings are exempt.
“Whether it can be applied to a county building is an undecided question. Pursuant to Missouri case law, there are some types of city ordinances we can apply to county buildings and some that we can’t. There’s never been a case that determined whether or not this kind ordinance would apply to a county building.”
But what’s even more interesting and what Julie did not know is that there is a second license office on the very same floor. This one requires masks.
I entered Room 244 on Thursday and one employee I saw was wearing a mask and a second promptly pulled hers up as I entered.
This office has only been open since mid-July. It was created because the pandemic had caused a backlog for license office services.
This office — the one that requires masks — is operated by the state. The employees are state employees.
Supervisor Mariah Farrier tells me that clients who enter are asked to wear a mask. A sign on the door says a mask is required.
“But we can’t make them wear a mask,” Farrier says.
The office down the hall, which has been open much longer, is operated by a private company: License Office Services, LLC. It has state contracts to operate 16 other offices in Missouri, including ones in Ava, Bolivar, Branson West and Marshfield.
More Answer Man:
Two more license offices to visit
Since there are only two other license offices in Springfield, I decided to drive to both to see if they required employees to wear masks. I assumed they would require them because both are in strip centers that I doubt are owned or leased by the state. Both are operated by private companies with state contracts.
To my surprise, the office at 1002 S. Glenstone Ave. (next to a Jimmy John’s on East Grand Street) is closed until Nov. 16. A sign on the door states the office is closed due to a quarantine.
This office is operated by the Breast Cancer Foundation of the Ozarks.
The license office at 319 E. Battlefield Road, Suite P, near Food 4 Less, requires employees and almost all customers to wear a mask.
I walked in Thursday afternoon and the place was hopping. In fact, I spotted a woman I had seen a few minutes earlier at the closed office on Glenstone Avenue.
The sign on the door on the Battlefield Road office stated a mask was required.
Everyone (both sides of the long counter) wore a mask.
I talked to a supervisor and gave her my card and only minutes later the owner of the company operating the office called. The business is called Elle DMV Management, with headquarters in St. Louis. It manages eight driver’s license offices in Missouri.
“My employees are required to wear a mask,” owner Terri Harris tells me. “I have one employee in the entire company who has a medical exemption and cannot wear a mask.”
That employee does not work in Springfield.
“If there is a customer who cannot wear a mask we will have that person schedule an appointment before our usual opening hours and meet with an employee who is not in any way compromised medically,” she says.
“We will serve that customer and then sanitize the office and then open,” Harris says.
Julie, the woman who first contacted me, had expressed her discontent in her email.
“Why should people who work in the state office building ignore local health protocols in a pandemic, putting local citizens at risk? It is my expectation that wherever I do business in the city, we are all required by law to wear masks. I am also required by law to renew my state driver’s license. I chose this office for safety reasons because of the low volume of customers at that hour.
“I believe that, at the very least this office should be required to publicize the fact that employees do not comply with the city mask mandate so that seniors, like me, can make an informed decision to keep themselves safe.”
Consider it publicized, Julie.
Keep those questions coming. Send them to The Answer Man at 417-836-1253, firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @stevepokinNL or by mail to 651 Boonville Ave., Springfield, MO 65806.