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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

How The Coronavirus Dramatically Changed Missouri Politics And Policy

Gov. Mike Parson answers a reporter's question at a press conference in Clayton on May 29, 2020.
File photo | David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson's leadership was put into high focus during the past year's COVID-19 pandemic.

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:

021821_ES_Pritzker Vax Visit (6).jpg
File photo | Eric Schmid
Illinois Gov. J.B. Prizker asks St. Clair County Health Department Deputy Director Myla Blandford about the county's mass vaccination site on Feb. 18.

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.

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page votes early Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020 at First Church of Christ, Scientist in Creve Coeur. He defeated Republican challenger Paul Berry to retain his seat as county executive.
File photo | David Kovaluk
St. Louis County Executive Sam Page votes last November at First Church of Christ, Scientist in Creve Coeur. Page won another two years in office but faced fierce criticism from multiple angles for his COVID-19 response.

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.

Bill Greenblatt
Dr. Alex Garza, head of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, became a visible presence over the past year charting out how COVID-19 was affecting St. Louis hospitals.

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.

Nurse Ben Ojie was among the first in the St. Louis region to receive a coronavirus vaccination. Ojie works works in the COVID-19 unit at Mercy South Hospital in south St. Louis County. Monday, December 14, 2020.
File photo | Theo R. Welling
Nurse Ben Ojie receives a coronavirus vaccination. Ojie works works in the COVID-19 unit at Mercy South Hospital in south St. Louis County.

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.

St. Louis voters cast a ballot for the March primary at Lexington Elementary in north city on March 2, 2021.
Kayla Drake
St. Louis voters cast a ballot for the March primary at Lexington Elementary in north city.

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.

A supporter for Congresswoman Ann Wagner holds a campaign sign for the Republican outside her local polling site at Ballwin Golf Course and Events Center on Election Day Tuesday, November 3, 2020
File photo | Theo R. Welling
A supporter for U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner holds a campaign sign for the Republican outside her local polling site at Ballwin Golf Course and Events Center on Election Day.

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

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