Stay-at-home order starts to lift in St. Louis County, but it’s no ‘return to normal,’ Page says

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Photo by Erin Achenbach

Curbside pickup was open at Helen Fitzgerald's in Sunset Hills March 18.

By Gloria Lloyd, News Editor

The stay-at-home orders issued in St. Louis County and the city of St. Louis will start to lift  today with some businesses allowed to reopen, but that is far from a “return to normal,” County Executive Sam Page said Monday.

“We can’t look at this as a victory or a celebration. Too many lives have been lost,” Page said at a press briefing. “We cannot let this gradual and thoughtful reopening be looked at as a return to normal, it’s really far from it.”

More than 4,000 people have tested positive for the coronavirus in St. Louis County and 33 people have died.

Businesses that can reopen in a “safe and responsible manner” starting Monday, Page said, include restaurants for dine-in at a limited capacity and other businesses that have been closed for almost two months under his stay-at-home order. Many businesses were classified as “nonessential” under Page’s first public-health order in March and forced to close to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Monday’s new freedom will also come with restrictions, including crowd-size and capacity limits, and a requirement that businesses and customers socially distance and wear masks. Employees will be required to wear masks and will be able to turn away customers who aren’t wearing masks.

Gyms will not be allowed to reopen, despite the defiance of the House of Pain gyms in Chesterfield and Maryland Heights, which reopened weeks ago before the order was lifted. Bars and venues for sports and entertainment will also stay closed.

As part of the reopening, malls including South County Center, West County Center, the Galleria, Plaza Frontenac and St. Louis Premium Outlets will reopen, although not every store inside the malls will choose to reopen.

The St. Louis Archdiocese also lifted its ban on in-person mass starting Monday, leaving the decision whether to hold mass up to individual churches.

“Be prepared to wear a mask, be prepared to stay 6 feet apart,” Page said of the changes at a briefing May 6.

The new restrictions may stay in place until a vaccine is developed, the county executive said. Pfizer is working on one in St. Louis County, one of about 100 such efforts around the world. President Donald Trump has said that a vaccine could be approved as soon as January.

“The vaccine is what gets us back to where we were, but until then we are in a new normal where we respect social distancing, where we wear masks and where we try to limit the spread of this,” Page said.

Page issued his first stay-at-home order March 21 and reissued one April 22 that requires residents to stay home and closes all businesses deemed “nonessential” — anything except for grocery stores, pharmacies, hardware stores and restaurants for curbside, delivery and takeout. Business owners sued the county and city Monday demanding to reopen.

Gov. Mike Parson later issued a statewide stay-at-home order, which he lifted May 4 But Page said that St. Louis County and the city of St. Louis have most of the cases in the state and need to cooperate on a later end to their lockdowns.

“The last few months have been unlike anything we’ve ever seen in our lifetime — lives have been lost, livelihoods have been destroyed. And everybody wants to get back to normal, but we can’t undo any of the good work that we’ve done here in St. Louis County to allow us to have a different experience than other people in our country and other people in the world,” said Page, a medical doctor.

Anyone out in public, even not entering a business, will be requested to wear a mask.

The county may enforce the mask mandate for employees if residents lodge complaints, but police will not be forcing citizens to wear masks, Page said. Instead, businesses will be allowed to deny entry to customers if they are not wearing masks.

“We must get our economy going again and we understand that, but our first priority will be to save lives,” Page said at the briefing. “We have to move forward in a responsible manner. If we move too quickly, we know what can happen — we can have a second wave and it can be more devastating than the first wave…. This will be slow, but it will get us moving forward safely towards a new normal.”

He predicted that customers will avoid businesses where employees aren’t wearing masks.

“I will be very surprised if businesses whose employees are not wearing masks will get much traffic,” Page said. “…. Businesses that do not have their employees wearing masks will be policed more frequently by their customers. We will listen to complaints.”

Page said he consulted on the new order with Parson and Dr. Alex Garza, SSM Health chief medical officer and the head of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force made up of local hospitals.

The county executive said the governor understands that the city and county should have local control over their own restrictions, and he said Garza also believes that a gradual reopening could happen with limits on crowd sizes and masks in addition to the social distancing already in force. Page said he is working with the St. Louis Economic Partnership, civic leaders, the county Department of Public Health and even using national resources to figure out the best plan for reopening.

Page and Garza are taking these steps even though they know that once they start to reopen businesses, the region’s COVID-19 cases will likely trend upward.

“As we begin to ease our public-health orders, the virus will begin to move about our community,” Page said, noting that if he sees that trend turn into more of a spike, “we act quickly…. Any time data goes in the wrong direction, we’ll re-evaluate or modify our decisions.”

Page predicted that coronavirus treatment will get more effective as time goes on, until a vaccine is developed.