With COVID-19 cases overwhelming hospitals and reaching record highs for yet another day, starting today St. Louis County residents will be encouraged to stay home and only leave to go to work, school, medical care, grocery shopping and other essential activities for the next month in a stay-at-home advisory issued Friday by County Executive Sam Page.
In rules that went into effect at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, Page’s “safer at home order” (read the full text of the order) will not separate businesses into essential and nonessential businesses as his six-week stay-at-home order did early in the pandemic. But all businesses, retail or otherwise, will be limited to 25-percent capacity instead of the 50-percent capacity they had been operating under. Exceptions include hospitals and medical facilities — for full exceptions, see the end of this article. In the days since the order was issued, large stores like Target in South County have started counting customers who enter.
The order takes effect as cases in the county hit record levels. For the first time, the county recorded more than 1,000 new cases in a single day Monday.
Indoor dining is once again banned at restaurants, although outdoor dining, curbside and takeout will be allowed to operate. Bars can only offer takeout and delivery.
Gatherings larger than 10 are banned. The previous limit had been 50. The limit applies to holiday parties and weddings, along with gatherings of any kind.
In the days since Page said the order would go into effect, Bartolino’s South and the Missouri Restaurant Association have said they would file a lawsuit contesting the indoor dining ban, which comes at the holiday time that in a normal year is key for restaurant revenue.
Protesting “Sam Page’s overreach,” Bartolino’s posted on its Facebook page Saturday, “We, and other Family owned Restaurants in St. Louis County are not going quietly! … ” and promised to open anyway despite the ban. Two of the three Bartolino’s family of restaurants are in the city of St. Louis, where Mayor Lyda Krewson has so far chosen not to order an indoor dining ban or a stay-at-home advisory.
Page, a Democrat, was elected to a two-year term Nov. 3, the day after first warning he might have to enact higher restrictions if cases did not go down. By all measures since then, the number of cases, positivity rates and hospitalizations have increased, with the regional task force pointing to particular hotspots in the South County and surrounding ZIP codes of Oakville, Concord/Mehlville and Arnold. The county also notes on the order that more than 900 St. Louis County residents have died since the start of the pandemic.
But Republicans like 6th District County Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-Oakville, have been opposing Page’s executive orders and tried to get them overturned by the council.
The order actually encourages socially distant activities like drive-by parades, which many residents did to celebrate birthdays and other occasions during the previous stay-at-home order: “Congregate activities that maintain safe distances from others, such as car parades and drive-in entertainment, are encouraged in lieu of other forms of group activities to promote community engagement and mental health.” The Christmas in Crestwood organization said its Dec. 5 event featuring a Santa parade and fireworks is still on and needed more than ever with the restrictions in effect.
Page encourages residents to form “support bubbles” of 10 friends and family that are the only people they see outside the house, including for holiday gatherings like Thanksgiving. The members of the bubble are still required to wear masks and socially distance when gathering. A person cannot be part of more than one bubble. If a member of the bubble gets sick, they are required to inform the others. But the county warned that participating in a support bubble increases your risk of contracting the virus.
The county is officially discouraging contact with anyone outside your household: “Staying home is the only truly safe option,” the county Department of Public Health said on its website.
The order lowering business capacity will be enforced by complaints, but the county will be unable to police private gatherings inside houses, Page noted. Complaints about businesses can be sent through the “Contact Us” tab at stlcorona.com.
“We are encouraging everyone to limit their activity in the community to what they absolutely need or their bubble,” Page said. “We are not closing any retail, we are limiting all businesses to 25-percent capacity with the exception of indoor dining in restaurants.”
The county said that residents should leave home only when it’s “absolutely necessary,” giving the examples of work, school, medical care, grocery shopping and purchasing food and necessary items. Anyone who can work from home is encouraged to work from home under the order.
Although the county executive said a national mask mandate would have helped lower cases, he did not want to spend too much time retracing how the virus got to current levels: “This is where we are. We’re here in part because of virus fatigue — many people tell me ‘I’m done with this virus,’ and I can only say this virus is not done with us.”
Officials have partially blamed the recent rise in cases on large gatherings surrounding Halloween, and the county is now officially discouraging large family gatherings for the holidays. Even in gatherings of 10 or less, the county says that masks should be worn and social distancing of more than 6 feet enforced for those who do not live in your same household. Eating meals with people from outside your household also increases the risk of transmission, since masks cannot be worn while eating.
“We have to be cautious around our holidays — this is not going to be a holiday season like anyone has seen in the past 100 years. We have to limit gatherings, we have to limit gatherings in people’s homes,” Page said. “Folks that are traveling in and out of the community are at grave risk to bring COVID to others. We have to take this very seriously. We do recognize that limiting holiday gatherings is going to be very difficult — it’s where we are until we reach the other side of this, but the next few months is going to be very difficult for everyone. There will be a great deal more loss of life and a great deal more sacrificed in the community.”
But that aspect of the order upset Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, the state senator representing Sunset Hills and parts of Concord in South County.
Koenig tweeted, “Telling families they can’t gather for Thanksgiving in their private home is unacceptable and only something a tyrant dictator would do. I will be having #Thanksgiving with my family. Come and get me @DrSamPage. #MOLeg @StLCountyRepub @SaintLouCo”
A second order expands the existing countywide mask mandate to require that everyone over the age of 5 wear a mask while outside their house, even while visiting private homes. Social distancing and staying 6 feet apart is still required. Exercisers will be required to wear masks while at gyms. People who are exercising inside their own house or outdoors more than 6 feet away from people do not have to wear a mask.
Page’s third order will limit the county Department of Public Health’s participation in contact tracing and enforcing quarantines due to the sheer number of cases county officials are facing. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the health department has contacted those who test positive, traced their contacts, asked them to quarantine and provided a letter releasing them from quarantine. The health department will instead focus on high-risk populations and will be unable to handle every case.
Anyone who tests positive for the virus is required to trace their own contacts and let them know that they’ve been exposed, and enforce their own isolation. A call from the health department is not guaranteed to come. Instructions for how to isolate are available at stlcorona.com/isolation. You must also notify everyone you were in close contact with while you were infectious that they need to quarantine. Instructions for quarantine are available at stlcorona.com/quarantine.
In order to be released from isolation if you have the virus, a physician will need to grant you the release going forward instead of the county.
The stay-at-home advisory does not apply to schools. School districts are making their own decisions about whether to stay open or go virtual. The ban on gatherings does not apply to youth sports, school or non-school, that are operating under a plan that has already been approved by the health department.
Exceptions to the 25-percent capacity limit for businesses include: Medical, hospitals, public transit and airports; shelters; daycares; schools; polling places; and businesses that do not interact with the public, although even in those businesses, gatherings of 10 or more employees are banned.
Businesses that must submit new plans to operate, even if they already did under previous executive orders, include attractions and entertainment venues, casinos, museums and commercial sporting events.