Council votes to rescind mask mandate, Page says it still stands

Opponents argue mask mandate violates state law

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By Erin Achenbach, News Editor

The St. Louis County Council last Tuesday voted to overturn the county’s mask mandate just one day after it had been reinstated in response to rising COVID-19 cases in the region. 

The County Council voted 5-2 on a bipartisan vote July 27 to overturn the county’s mask mandate, County Executive Sam Page, along with St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jone, reinstituted the Monday before. 

Council Chairwoman Rita Days and fellow Democrat, 4th District Councilwoman Shalonda Webb, voted along with Republicans 3rd District Councilman Tim Fitch, 6th District Councilman Ernie Trakas and 7th District Councilman Mark Harder to dismiss the mandate, while 2nd District Councilwoman Kelli Dunaway and 5th District Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, both Democrats, voted to keep the mandate in place. 

Following the council’s vote, Page said in a press conference that he believes the mandate still stands and that the issue will be decided in court. 

“The Delta variant is highly transmissible and is affecting our progress. These numbers are too alarming to ignore. As healthcare workers and elected leaders, we can’t stand idly by and let this Delta variant rack up more and more victims with each passing day, ” said Page. “There’s a lot of political rhetoric around public health orders in our community … but the proper place to adjudicate a public health order is in court. … This current public health order is in court. … Until then, the law stands.” 

Opponents to the mandate argue it violates a recently-passed piece of legislation that limits local governments’ public health orders. The law restricts local governments from issuing public health orders that directly or indirectly restrict access to businesses, churches, schools or other gathering places for more than 30 calendar days in a 180-day period during a state of emergency. Orders can be extended with a majority vote of the local governing body. 

“Sam Page and his supporters have done their best to make our discussion tonight about masks versus no masks. They want to divide us,” said Fitch at last week’s council meeting. “Before we have that discussion, we have to settle his blatant violation of state law, the county charter and county ordinance by issuing the so-called mask mandate.” 

The council’s vote follows a lawsuit against the mandate from Missouri Attorney Eric Schmitt, who called the mandate “unacceptable and unconstitutional, especially in the face of a widely available vaccine.” 

Most of the public comments at the council meeting also condemned the mandate and some equated it to “playing God.” So many people had signed up to speak that the council suspended the usual one-hour rule for public comment and extended it to two hours. 

Proponents of the mandate argue that it is one of the easiest ways to keep people safe.

“The Delta variant is dangerous. It’s raging across our state, it’s feeding on our high levels of unvaccianted residents and it’s causing another alarming surge in cases … so we have to step up again,” said Clancy. “I do unequivocally support the mask mandate … because the mask mandate will save lives. … I have consulted with medical professionals, public health professionals. Honestly, those are the only folks I feel we should consult with. We are in the middle of a public health emergency.” 

The mandate requires anyone 5 and older to wear a mask in indoor public spaces, regardless of vaccination status. No other restrictions, like capacity limits or business closures, have been implemented. 

Dr. Faisal Khan, the acting director of the county’s Department of Public Health, attended last week’s meeting to answer questions about the mandate. 

“Community transmission of COVID-19, applicable to the Delta variant, is now at an all-time high across the St. Louis region. The fact is, the Delta variant is posiased to cause more mystery, more disease, more hospitalizations and inflict more damage on the St. Louis region,” said Khan. “The trends over the last two months lead us to believe we are now in a very difficult situation. … There is only one way this is going: from bad to worse. The fact is, the scenario you saw play out in southwest Missouri has now slowly moved up the (Interstate) 44 corridor.” 

The same day as the council vote, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reversed course and said that everyone should mask up again in areas with high transmission rates regardless of vaccination status, after data showed that the Delta variant is as contagious as chicken pox and measles, and can be spread from vaccinated people. 

On Friday, data from the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic TASk Force showed that inpatient confirmed COVID-positive hospitalizations increased from 398 to 413 across the task force hospitals, while the seven-day moving average of hospitalizations increased from 348 to 361.  

Across task force hospitals, staffed bed capacity is at a 92 percent average, while intensive care units are at 79 percent of their total staff bed capacity.