St. Louis County Issues New Indoor Mask Mandate Amid Legal Wrangling
After a legal setback last week, St. Louis County on Monday issued a new indoor mask mandate that County Executive Sam Page is confident will hold up to legal scrutiny.
The move comes after Attorney General Eric Schmitt has slammed Page’s decision to keep a previous mandate, with the GOP official pledging to continue to fight the order in court.
St. Louis County’s mask mandate has been ensnared in litigation for several months. Page’s administration hoped it could be resolved after the county council reversed course in August and passed a resolution affirming support for the proposal. But St. Louis County Judge Nellie Ribaudo denied a bid to dissolve an injunction against the mandate. She said, “had the Council issued a new public health order with the approval of the Council then perhaps the issues might have been moot but as the Council chose to extend the July 26, 2021 Face Covering Order instead the issue is not moot.”
During a press conference on Monday, Page announced that the county health department had issued a new mask mandate that he says is in line with what Ribaudo wrote in her decision last week. The order goes into effect immediately.
“Masks help us mitigate the virus while we continue doing all we can to get those who are eligible vaccinated,” Page said. “To be consistent with the judge’s orders, we’re putting in place a new mask order.”
Page alluded to a letter St. Louis County Council Chairwoman Rita Days sent last week stating that there would be a committee hearing on Oct. 5 for council members to hear from acting Health Department Director Faisal Khan about the mask mandate. Based on a recently enacted state law, the council must act within 30 days to extend any COVID-related order.
“And, I want to make myself clear: If County Executive Page chooses this option, I will not oppose his mask mandate effort,” said Days, D-Bel Nor, in the letter. “This will give council members the proper amount of time to deliberate and question all the evidence that may be presented by your department and others.”
Days initially voted to rescind the county’s mask mandate in July but ended up voting for a resolution supporting it in August.
Page noted in his remarks that one of the key reasons for issuing the mask order was to “help keep our children safe who are not eligible for vaccines.” When asked if the mask mandate may be reconsidered when the vaccine becomes available for children older than 5, Page said, “It’s a complex question, but the mask guidance is directed by the number of the cases in the community and the trend in those cases.”
“When we get more kids vaccinated, then we know that the cases will trend down,” Page said. “So the availability of the vaccine doesn’t mean kids are vaccinated. That just means we can start vaccinating them now. It takes time for them to get vaccinated. It takes time for those vaccinations to take effect. But we will consider our mask guidance and our masking orders based on where we are in cases — and after our public health department confers with their experts in the medical community.”
Schmitt slams Page’s decision
Several officials who have been critical of Page’s decision to pursue a mask mandate panned his announcement on Monday.
Chris Nuelle, a spokesman for Schmitt, said in a statement that Page “has lost in court over and over again” and “apparently he needs a reminder that his actions are unlawful.”
“We are pursuing all legal options,” Nuelle said. “Attorney General Schmitt will continue to fight for the people of Missouri. St. Louisans are citizens not subjects.”
During a press conference last week in St. Louis, Schmitt said people have grown weary of mask mandates. The Republican official also filed a lawsuit against mask mandates at schools throughout the state.
“These are petty tyrants seeking to aggregate more power,” Schmitt said. “They’re never going to let it go. They don’t want to let it go. So it’s my job to fight back.”
Councilman Tim Fitch, R-St. Louis County, said that based on a recently enacted state law, Page isn't allowed to issue another public health order around COVID-19 until mid-January. He said Monday's announcement was "about politics for Sam Page, nothing more and nothing less."
He also said the fact that Page's administration has said it doesn't plan to aggressively enforce the mask mandate order "proves to the public he's not serious about this."
"It proves to the public that it's about politics and perception and about Sam Page getting a win," Fitch said.
St. Louis Countians - I wouldn't give the new masking order any credibility. It's just another way of giving you the middle finger.— Tim Fitch (@ChiefTimFitch) September 27, 2021
Page said his administration “stands by his legal authority” to issue another mask mandate.
“I expect that the anti-mask and anti-vaccine contingent to continue to push back,” Page said. “I believe that it’s wrong. And I will follow the guidance of our public health department and our experts. And their guidance on masking and vaccinations have helped us get our hands around COVID in our community and helped us get COVID cases trending the right direction and helped us keep our kids in in-person school.”
Support for Khan
Meanwhile, Page expressed support for Khan — who has faced harsh criticism from the county council in recent weeks.
The council still hasn’t approved Khan’s nomination to be permanent health director. And council members delayed a vote in a committee hearing last week after several wanted to know more about the investigation into whether his claims of racial and physical abuse at a July council hearing were true.
Page said that even if council members vote down Khan’s nomination, he would continue to serve in his administration.
“If the council approves him, then that would be great,” Page said. “If they don’t approve him, he will continue to be acting director. That’s very clearly established in our charter that the county executive can name directors or acting directors to fulfill whatever it needs in county government for county government to run.
“I don’t expect them to vote him down, but I guess they could,” he added. “But I think he’s doing a great job. And he’s leading the county in a very difficult time.”
Fitch said he isn't surprised that Page would continue to support Khan. He said if Page fired him, it could provide more insight into whether others were involved in a letter that Khan sent to Days that gained national attention.
"So Sam Page has no choice but to support Faisal Kahn no matter what the council does," Fitch said.
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum