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Coronavirus

Some St. Louis County Council Members Aim To Overrule Page On Mask Mandate

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page speaks said Monday  at a press conference on Nov. 11, 2020. Page says the rising number of coronavirus cases in the region is unsustainable and will soon overwhelm hospitals.
Jason Rosenbaum / St. Louis Public Radio
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Some members of the St. Louis County Council are opposed to County Executive Sam Page's decision to renew a mask mandate. Council members say Page should have consulted them before issuing the mandate.

Some members of the St. Louis County Council plan to try to overturn County Executive Sam Page's decision to reinstate a mask mandate when the council meets Tuesday.

Page and St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones said Monday that everyone age 5 and older must wear a mask in indoor public places, even if they have received the COVID-19 vaccine. The mandates imposed by the two Democrats come as the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus continues to spread across the state and region.

St. Louis County Councilman Tim Fitch, a Republican, said that Page should have consulted with County Council members before implementing the mandate. Fitch cited a new state law that limits the ability of local executives to enact such measures.

“The conversation that we’re having on the county council is not about whether you should wear [a mask] or not,” Fitch said. “The conversation we’re having on the county council and we’ll have tomorrow night is does the county executive have the authority or his public health director to issue these mandates. And the answer legally clearly is he does not.”

Gov. Mike Parson signed a law in June that restricts local leaders from issuing public health orders for businesses, churches and schools for 30 days when the governor declares a public health emergency. Without it, they can impose restrictions for 21 days.

Health experts across the region have criticized the state law on the grounds that it puts lives at risk and makes it harder for local municipalities to fight the spread of the virus.

But Fitch said the council should decide whether to impose a mandate.

“Come to us, Mr. Page,” Fitch said. “Ask for our support and then let us decide on behalf of the million people that we represent in St. Louis County whether or not we think masks are appropriate to require.”

Fitch said he asked Dr. Faisal Khan, director of the county's Department of Public Health, to attend.

Council Chairwoman Rita Days, D-St. Louis County, said she doesn’t know which way she'd go if the council votes on the issue. But she said Page should not have given the order without first consulting the council.

“In my opinion, it’s more about the process of how this has taken place and not about masks, wearing them, not wearing them,” Days said.

Council member Shalonda Webb, D-St. Louis County, said in a statement that she’s not in favor of a countywide mask mandate and that Page should have consulted with council members. Webb said the while she believes masks work in preventing the spread of the virus, the county should prioritize vaccine access.

“I believe masks work, however, this only addresses the symptom,” Webb wrote. “Anyone that has not been vaccinated, can be vaccinated right now at this very moment. We must do a better job educating citizens on the safety of the vaccine and break through all of the conspiracy theories and misinformation, as the current rise in cases can be attributed to unvaccinated citizens.

The mask mandates follow a surge in coronavirus cases across the state, with 2,000 cases a day reported, the highest rate since January. The steep rise in cases has doctors and scientists worried, given that only 40.3% of Missouri residents are fully vaccinated. Some health experts across the country are urging leaders to consider issuing masking requirements, including former Surgeon General Jerome Adams.

Fitch said the region should continue prioritizing vaccinations

“Get vaccinated, I can't say it any clearer than that, Fitch said. “That is our way out of this.”

Late in the day, the mask mandates in St. Louis and St. Louis County encountered a legal challenge from Attorney General Eric Schmitt.

Among other things, Schmitt’s suit says that because the legislative branches in the city and county never got a report on why the mandates were necessary, they run afoul of a recently enacted state law. That law gives entities like the St. Louis County Council the ability to reject COVID-19 restrictions — or not extend them after 30 days.

“This continued government overreach is unacceptable and unconstitutional, especially in the face of a widely available vaccine,” Schmitt said in a statement.

Page has questioned whether a mask mandate falls under the new law, since it’s not affecting the opening or closing of businesses. And the county’s order specifically states that it “does not, directly, or indirectly, close, partially close, or place restrictions on the opening of or access to any business organization, church, school, or any other place of public or private gathering or assembly.”

“Rather, this Order merely regulates the conduct of certain individuals while in St. Louis County in the event that, and only after, they access an indoor or enclosed public building or space or public transportation vessel,” the order states.

But detractors of Page say the newly enacted statute says that the council has oversight on any measure that “places restrictions on the opening of or access” of a business.

Schmitt’s lawsuit is seeking to invalidate the mask mandates in both the city and the county.

At Monday’s press conference, Jones said the lawsuit was frivolous and “a waste of taxpayer dollars.”

Follow Chad on Twitter @iamcdavis

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