How The Coronavirus Dramatically Changed Missouri Politics And Policy
It’s been one year since COVID-19 fundamentally changed how Missourians, and the rest of the world, live.
The pandemic also transformed politics in Missouri and in the St. Louis region. It fostered divisions on a multitude of fronts, including whether policymakers should reopen schools and if local or state governments should require masks. And it shone a spotlight on executive leaders — and public health officials who typically stay out of the media’s glare.
On the latest episode of Politically Speaking, five St. Louis Public Radio reporters gave their takeaways about how the virus changed politics and them.
Here’s some of the key themes from the show — and the year:
It wasn’t easy being an executive leader
Through public health orders, governors, county executives and mayors shut down businesses, required people to wear masks and, in St. Louis County’s case, even made parks off-limits for a time.
Depending on your perspective, these decisions were either a prudent way to protect public health against a deadly virus or an encroachment of liberty. And this philosophical divide often meant that leaders of different states and different cities handled the coronavirus differently.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker enacted a number of restrictions across the state — including a mask mandate and curbs on when and how businesses could operate. Even though Missouri Gov. Mike Parson issued a state stay-at-home order at the beginning of the crisis, he never instituted a mask mandate. And that meant that some places, like St. Louis, had wildly different COVID-19 curbs than exurban or rural areas.
These decisions often elicited strong reactions, turning people like Parson or St. Louis County Executive Sam Page into magnets for fierce criticism or praise.
Even in blue Missouri, there was disagreement
Even in St. Louis and St. Louis County, which contain most of the state’s Democratic voters, there were fundamental disagreements over how COVID-19 restrictions should be implemented.
That decision to shut down St. Louis County parks wasn’t reciprocated by either St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson or a number of county municipalities. The city and county also had substantially different restrictions on restaurants and masking. If you were a 6-year-old who visited the St. Louis Aquarium, you didn’t have to wear a mask. But you did at The Magic House.
When Page was running to serve out the rest of his unexpired term as county executive, he chalked up these differences as relatively minor ones that were being magnified in order to harm his election chances. But Page’s COVID-19 performance, including restrictions on restaurants and youth sports, has helped bring about a bipartisan opposition coalition that could stymie his ability to pass meaningful legislation.
Public health officials stepped out of the shadows
Elected officials are generally used to being the target of criticism. But the COVID-19 crisis placed officials in charge of managing public health care programs in greater focus — and not always for the better.
Numerous county health department officials, especially in rural Missouri, were lambasted for pushing for mask mandates. St. Francois County’s health director resigned in November after facing sustained harassment over the issue.
After making an emotional plea for more state action to control the virus and more vaccine for the St. Louis region, Dr. Alex Garza, the head of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, was criticized by Parson.
The pandemic showcased a rural-urban divide
There’s been more focus recently on how vaccine events in rural Missouri have had plenty of openings, unlike those in urban and suburban areas. But assuming that rural residents don’t want the vaccine can be faulty — as evidenced by how events in the Rolla area have filled up quickly.
Rolla also put in a mask mandate. After several months, the city council let it expire on a 6-6 vote.
COVID-19 changed how people view voting
Perhaps one of the more consequential policy decisions of 2020 was the legislature's expansion of absentee voting for that year’s primary and general election season. While the final product wasn’t universally beloved, the impact was unquestionable: More people used the absentee ballot process in November than at any other point in Missouri history.
The pandemic also showcased that Missouri was more progressive-minded than other states when it came to processing absentee ballots before Election Day. That’s why Missouri had results pretty quickly, while Pennsylvania residents had to wait days before figuring out Biden won the state.
And while expanded absentee voting went away after December, a number of voters in the city of St. Louis openly said they wouldn’t participate in the mayoral election because it would require them to lie about the reason they’re getting an absentee ballot.
Since Republicans still won decisively last year even with expanded absentee voting, it has made the idea of doing away with excuse-based, in-person absentee voting more mainstream. But those ideas are being paired with proposals with more opposition, including doing away with the presidential primary — providing an unclear pathway to implementation.
Missouri didn’t shift politically because of the pandemic
It could be argued that former President Donald Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic was instrumental in his defeat. But the pandemic didn’t have much effect on Missouri’s political trajectory toward him or other Republicans, as Parson was able to win reelection handily over Democratic state Auditor Nicole Galloway.
That happened even though Galloway tried to make Parson’s actions during the pandemic a central focus of the campaign, most notably his decision not to implement a mask mandate. But the results speak for themselves: Parson crushed Galloway in rural and exurban parts of the state and won one of the most lopsided gubernatorial elections for a Republican in decades.
Trump’s enduring popularity in Missouri definitely played a role in the GOP sweep. But it will remain to be seen if his departure from office and Biden’s actions as president shift political sensibilities. Missouri’s suddenly wide-open U.S. Senate race next year is a key test of that question.
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum