Coleman gets Jefferson County to back down on masks


By Erin Achenbach, Staff Reporter

The Jefferson County Health Department last week dropped its bid to implement a mask mandate after a previous repeal.

The department’s Board of Trustees previously revoked a countywide mask mandate less than 24 hours after voting for it in late August, after concerns were raised by Rep. Mary Elizabeth Coleman that the vote violated the Sunshine Law. Since then, coronavirus cases climbed until Jefferson County reached the “red zone” in September. At press time, the county was in the “orange zone,” the second-highest level, indicating “widespread but controlled transmission” of COVID-19.

After months of debate, Health Director Kelley Vollmar said at an Oct. 15 meeting of the department’s board, “I am not going to ask for a mask mandate. I want to put an olive branch out and find a way for our community to come together and work to find positive solutions to this.”

Meetings about implementing a mask mandate led to hours of public comments about the issue, highlighted by a five-hour meeting Aug. 28 when the board originally voted for the mandate.

Coleman, R-Arnold, a lawyer who represents Arnold in Jefferson County and a portion of South County, said the health department’s board did not properly notify the public prior to the five-hour videoconferenced original meeting that the mandate was to be discussed and voted on.

Coleman is unopposed for re-election this year. She was first elected in 2018.

To prevent the spread of COVID-19, mandatory mask mandates have been passed across the country, including St. Louis County, the city of St. Louis and the state of Illinois. Missouri is one of the few states without a statewide mask order, despite the White House Coronavirus Task Force repeatedly urging Gov. Mike Parson to order one.

The board narrowly passed a mask mandate by a vote of 3-2 in a meeting Aug. 28, with the mandate set to go into effect at midnight the following Monday.

However, less than 24 hours after the first meeting and after receiving a letter from Coleman, the board met again in a videoconferenced emergency meeting and voted unanimously 5-0 to overturn the mandate.

Like the mask mandate in effect in St. Louis County since July, the order would have applied to businesses and other public spaces in the county and would have required anyone over the age of 5 to wear a mask where proper social distancing could not be maintained. The Centers for Disease Control recommends that anyone over the age of 2 wear a mask.

Like Jefferson County, St. Charles County and Franklin County have also chosen not to implement mandates.

Coleman sent a letter to the health department the day after the board voted for the mask mandate, calling the vote an “overstep” of “due process” and requesting that the ordinance be released to the public.

“It’s really difficult for Jefferson Countians to be able to comply with something that they haven’t seen with even a single business day’s notice,” Coleman told The Call. “They (businesses and the public) didn’t even know the mask ordinance was passed, much less can they take the necessary measures to enforce it Monday at midnight.”

Coleman warned the health department and board in her letter that she would look into filing a lawsuit against them, on the grounds that they did not properly follow the Sunshine Law for the meeting where the mask mandate was approved.

Coleman’s office sent the letter, but she said in response to questions from constituents on Facebook that she was preparing to file the lawsuit herself, in her personal capacity as a taxpayer.

She said she personally wears a mask when she goes out, and is not opposed to masks.

“This isn’t about a mask ordinance. To me this is about trust in our institutions and meaningful participation,” Coleman said. “People feel really strongly both in favor and against the mask ordinance. But everybody should be in favor of due process and making sure the Sunshine Law is followed so we can have meaningful participation.”

The emergency meeting to walk back the mandate was also called without 24-hour notice or further information for the public. The meeting was called at 2:55 p.m. for a 3 p.m. meeting, Coleman posted on her Facebook page.

With the mask mandate rescinded, Coleman said that she would not continue to pursue litigation against the Board of Trustees for the perceived Sunshine Law violations for either the first meeting or the subsequent emergency meeting, telling The Call that as far as she understood, the violations had been reported to Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who typically handles Sunshine Law complaints.

“Although I am a lawyer, I am not a litigious person. I was only doing that because it was the only thing I could think of to get a temporary restraining order to allow businesses and Jefferson Countians the time needed to see what the heck was in this mask ordinance,” Coleman said. “Like I said, I’m not really a litigious person. I just happen to be a lawyer who knew what was going on was wrong and was in a position to try and intervene.”

The Jefferson County health board had first discussed invoking a mask mandate at its July meeting, but decided against imposing the requirement at that time.

At the July-August peak of the pandemic in the region, both Jefferson County and its neighbor across the St. Louis County line, South County, were repeatedly singled out by the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force as the COVID-19 hotspots for the entire St. Louis region.

Last month, Vollmar said that her county had entered “Red Status,” indicating that there was widespread uncontrolled community transmission.

The rolling average hit 25.46 Sept. 15 to surge just over the 25-case threshold to move to red, and had dropped to 22.8 as The Call went to press. The county’s case total increased by 359 over the last seven days, with an estimated 11.06-percent positivity rate among tests, down from 391 and 13.6 percent in September.

“It took weeks to earn our current status. And it will take just as long to pull ourselves back out. We can’t do it alone. We need the community’s help,” Vollmar said.