As businesses in St. Louis and St. Louis County prepare to reopen under new restrictions Monday, government officials say they expect a surge in reports of businesses failing to follow the health and safety guidelines.
Dr. Fredrick Echols, St. Louis Department of Health director, said his office is prepared to handle the influx in reports and help businesses get in line with the new requirements.
He said his office will focus on educating customers and businesses on the rules rather than strictly enforcing them. The rules include requiring employers to provide masks and limiting the number of people in enclosed spaces. Cease-and-desist letters and other formal notices would be used only if businesses refuse to comply with the orders, Echols said.
“We recognize that this is a difficult time for everyone, and we have to really work together to get through this COVID-19 experience,” he said.
Citizens in the city and county have self-reported more than 1,000 alleged stay-at-home order violations — most against businesses — in the weeks after local orders closed nonessential businesses. People can report violations to St. Louis and St. Louis County online, by email and by phone.
By mid-April, city and county officials had sent about 100 cease-and-desist letters to businesses. Some temporarily closed in response. A few business owners said they have appealed the letters, arguing they are essential businesses practicing appropriate social distancing. At least one, House of Pain gym in Chesterfield, has been sued by the county for refusing to close.
St. Louis County Executive Sam Page said that so far, most businesses have responded to a simple reminder to follow the rules.
“They understand how important these restrictions are, how important it is to move forward thoughtfully and responsibly in this reopening, and I expect most people to do that,” Page said.
St. Louis-area business owners like Sarah Rennie say they plan to follow the new orders as they reopen. But some are concerned the regulations aren’t strict enough and might increase risks for workers and customers alike.
Rennie owns All Four Corners Picture Framing Studio in Ladue. She intends to reopen slowly, first on an appointment-only basis on Monday. She plans to draw a six-foot barrier around her workstation and says she’ll provide masks and hand sanitizer to all her customers.
But she’s worried about how governments can enforce all the rules for retail businesses that need high volumes of customers to stay profitable, especially those in malls.
“You know how people are in the mall. They get together in big crowds, and they have a great old time, and nobody is concerned for each other’s space,” she said.
Rennie said that she’s also worried about the reopening guidelines requiring workers to wear masks but not customers. Businesses have the right to refuse service to customers who won’t wear face coverings, a safety precaution recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But she said that puts business owners in an uncomfortable position.
“The onus is on the business owners within their own personal spaces to make these requirements, which makes every single business owner who is doing that look like the bad guy,” Rennie said.
The situation is especially stressful for Rennie because she just started her business at the end of 2019. When coronavirus shut down the frame shop, she returned to her job as a grocer to help cover the bills.
“I put my entire family’s economic well-being at stake here,” she said. “It’s just hard to take a side and feel 100% comfortable. It’s like, you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t, and there’s no easy answer to it.”
Correction: St. Louis County sued House of Pain gyms. A previous St. Louis Public Radio report misstated the plaintiff.
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