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Coronavirus Dominates Low-Key Democratic St. Louis County Executive Debate

From left, Mark Mantovani, Sam Page, Jamie Tolliver and Jake Zimmerman faced off in a debate for the St. Louis County Executive Democratic Primary on Wednesday. 072220
Joe Prosperi | Nine Network
From left, Mark Mantovani, Sam Page, Jamie Tolliver and Jake Zimmerman face off in a debate for the St. Louis County executive Democratic primary on Wednesday.

The four Democratic candidates for St. Louis County executive resisted calling for additional limits on businesses and social gatherings in order to stop the spread of coronavirus, saying during a debate Wednesday that a countywide mask mandate and more social distancing were enough for now.

“But we have to be prepared to issue further restrictions on social distancing and gatherings if we cannot get universal mask wearing adopted,” said incumbent Sam Page. “We really would like to see mask mandates in our neighboring counties as well because there’s so much movement back and forth.”

The debate came as St. Louis County set a daily record for new positive cases with 263. Dr. Alex Garza, the head of the Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, said that the virus appeared to be spreading at a critical rate, and that it would be impossible to bend the curve in cases without decisive action.

Page did not provide specifics on what restrictions he might reimpose if numbers don’t improve. But businessman Mark Mantovani said a return to a complete shutdown would be “ruinous to many people.”

“As a practical matter, what we should be doing is evaluating the data, and we should be communicating with businesses, and we should be looking at the risks associated with those businesses, and then making decisions,” Mantovani said. “This should be a dimmer switch, not an on/off switch.”

University City resident Jamie Tolliver also emphasized the need to be working cooperatively with businesses, making them more aware of federal, state and local guidelines for safe operations.

Page has come under fire in recent days for his decision to place strict limits on youth sports, saying he believed they were the primary driver of the latest jump in infections. St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman picked up the line of attack.

“You have pediatricians saying they were left out of the discussion when they could have added an important voice,” he said. “To have a situation, as these virus cases rise, where we’re saying kids can’t play softball but it’s OK to have bars open? It strikes me as something is wrong.”

Mantovani acknowledged that the virus caught a lot of people by surprise. But he was also critical of Page’s lack of collaboration, calling it “abysmal.”

“The county executive has operated his decision-making like Moses,” Mantovani said. “He descends from the mountain and tells people the way it is, and then he’s frustrated that people don’t abide by his direction.”

Page was also accused of being slow to respond to the disparate impact COVID-19 has on minority residents of St. Louis County. The latest data show COVID-19 cases are still concentrated in north St. Louis County.

“I definitely believe the essential workers should have been catered to first, simply because they are on the front lines,” Tolliver said. “However, we should have also followed the science to see who was most susceptible among us, and that was definitely the people in North County. They seem to have gotten theirs less. We definitely hear of families who were more advantaged, they were able to get testing sooner than other people.”

Page defended his administration’s response. As soon as the county was able to secure testing supplies, he said, he sent them to the high-risk regions.

“Our response from St. Louis County has been focused like a laser on the communities most likely impacted,” Page said. “Today, I announced another $7 million in federal money to improve access to health care in North County.” 

The numbers are still bad because of long-standing racial inequities, Page added.

While Zimmerman and Mantovani directed most of their jabs toward Page, they also sparred with each other, especially around the issue of economic development.

Earlier this month, Michael Neidorff, the CEO of Centene, announced that his company would build a new eastern headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina, while offering a sharp critique of the St. Louis region. It was a wake-up call with consequences, Zimmerman said.

“If it woke Jake up, he was already sleeping,” Mantovani retorted. “I’ve been saying this stuff for two or three years. We are falling behind nationally because our economic development apparatus has been out of control.”

Zimmerman replied: “Those of us who want to act in good faith rather than cater to the desires of a handful of billionaires should understand if we work together with a little bit less political sniping and a little more vision for what we could be rather than what we have been, maybe we’ll get something done.”

When Mantovani called Zimmerman “the king of sniping,” Zimmerman responded with a Harry S. Truman quote — “I don’t give them hell, I just tell the truth and sometimes they think it’s hell.”

The primary election is Aug. 4. On the Republican side, Paul Berry III is facing Ed Golterman.

The debate was hosted by St. Louis Public Radio, 5  On Your Side and the Nine Network.

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Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

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