The St. Louis County Council voted along party lines last week in favor of enacting a countywide mask mandate.
By a vote of 4-3, the council voted to establish the mandate Jan. 4 in its first meeting of 2022. Council chairwoman Rita Days of the 1st District, Vice Chairwoman Shalonda Webb of the 4th District, 5th District Councilwoman Lisa Clancy and 2nd District Councilwoman Kelli Dunaway voted in favor; all four are Democrats. Republicans Tim Fitch of the 3rd District, 6th District Councilman Ernie Trakas and 7th District Councilman Mark Harder voted against.
The order went into effect Jan. 5 and applies to people age 5 and older in indoor public buildings and on public transportation.
The order was introduced by Clancy, who pointed to the increase in positive COVID-19 cases across the region as the need for such a measure.
“As physicians and scientists, we wear masks because they are safe and effective. Requiring masks in public places is a small act that will help decrease transmission right away. Our hospitals are overwhelmed. We are tired. We are close to breaking. We need quick action. We can’t wait,” Clancy said, reading a letter submitted to the council from over 200 regional doctors and physicians.
The vote follows several months of contentious debate and public comment, as well as a series of masking orders that were enacted and then lifted in response to lawsuits from the state attorney general. The county lifted its latest order last month after a Cole County judge ruled that local health department had limited jurisdiction in issuing COVID-19 restrictions.
Trakas, who represents the majority of South County, likened the order to “soft tyranny.”
“Aristotle told us that the law is reason, free from passion. This proposed order and the legislation behind it … is exactly the opposite: passion without reason,” Trakas said. “There is no COVID exception to the First Amendment. … There is no legislative exclusion to our constitution. The council’s passage of this proposed order tonight is nothing short of reckless … and illegal, and will be proven as such, costing the taxpayers more money. “
Harder called on Attorney General Eric Schmitt to file a lawsuit against the county in response to the order, which Schmitt did the following day.
“I hope the AG is listening and that he takes that information and the information exchanged here tonight and puts a good case together,” Harder said.
There was some debate whether four or five votes were needed to pass the order but County Counselor Beth Orwick said only a simple majority was needed.
Shortly after the vote, Schmitt tweeted, “The COVID tyrants are at it again in St. Louis Co with another illegal masking order. They simply refuse to relinquish their power to the people who came make these decisions themselves.”
Clancy said that she was happy to be moving forward with the measure and that it complied with state law regarding emergency local health orders.
“I’m going to continue to side with medical professionals with science about the benefits of masking and everything else that we need to be doing … to push back on the spread of COVID,” Clancy said. “The county counselor already shared that we are doing this under our existing ordinances in our charter … We are no longer under a state of emergency. This order doesn’t close any businesses.”
Like previous orders, the mandate does not authorize criminal penalties or enforcement for noncompliance.
“I think we’re going to find out that this is going to be just like the other votes that we took. The county counselor is going to be overruled again. … For people to think that we suddenly have a legal mask mandate in place, I think would be mistaken,” Fitch said.
As of Jan. 10, the county was averaging over 2,400 new cases a day, with a 36.8 percent testing positivity. The seven-day COVID case rate per 100,000 people is 1540.2.