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St. Louis County Council Blocks Indoor Mask Mandate, Issue To Be Decided In Court

The St. Louis County Council voted 5-2 to terminate the county's mask mandate a day after it was issued.
Chad Davis
St. Louis Public Radio
The St. Louis County Council voted 5-2 to terminate the county's mask mandate a day after it was issued.

The St. Louis County Council voted 5-2 to terminate the county’s indoor mask mandate following a contentious debate Tuesday night.

The issue is now headed to court, as both sides are claiming they have jurisdiction over the move.

County Executive Sam Page said that until a court rules, he believes the mandate remains in place.

“We do have a mask mandate that is in effect in St. Louis County,” Page said. “It’s before a judge, the attorney general has filed a lawsuit, and I hope that moves quickly to resolve this.”

Council members and some other officials disagreed.

“If Sam Page wants health mandates, this council stands ready to hear his arguments and act on his requests,” said Councilman Tim Fitch. “This is the legal and proper way to do this.”

The council vote to end the order came just one day after it began. The move had bipartisan support, with Democrats Rita Days and Shalonda Webb joining Republicans Fitch, Ernie Trakas and Mark Harder. Democrats Lisa Clancy and Kelli Dunaway voted to uphold it.

The mask mandate rejection is the latest dispute between the council and Page.

The mandate, announced in tandem with the City of St. Louis, requires everyone age 5 and older to wear a mask in indoor public places regardless of their vaccination status.

St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones backed the measure for the city. The action by Page and Jones followed a surge in coronavirus cases across the state from the highly contagious delta variant. Missouri reported averaging 2,000 cases a day last week, the most since January.

Opponents of Page’s mandate cited a new Missouri law that restricts local leaders from issuing public health orders for businesses, churches and schools.

Page said that he expects the courts to rule on the legality of the mask mandate but that the state law doesn’t apply to the order because it doesn’t affect the opening and closing of businesses.

Tuesday’s vote follows a legal challenge from Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who said the county council should have received a report on why a mandate was necessary. Schmitt’s lawsuit is filed against the county and St. Louis.

“This continued government overreach is unacceptable and unconstitutional, especially in the face of a widely available vaccine,” Schmitt said Monday.

State Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis, dismissed the idea that a mask mandate wouldn’t fall under purview of the new law he backed. He pointed to language stating that restrictions “on the opening of or access” of businesses could be nixed by the council.

“I think clearly a mask mandate as a condition of keeping your business open would be a restriction and would clearly be covered here,” Onder said. “And the question is whether the council supports Sam Page or the council the right of business owners to make their own decisions about masks.”

Proponents of the mask mandate said it’s the best way to keep unvaccinated people safe as the virus spreads.

“We cannot continue going about life as if nothing is happening while something terrible is happening,” Dunaway said. “And like the hundreds of others we have heard from today by email, I live in a home with people who cannot get a vaccine.”

Most of the public commenters condemned the mandate during a two-hour public hearing. Many said it infringed on their personal rights. Some displayed signs calling the action government tyranny.

Dr. Faisal Khan, director of the county's Department of Public Health, attended Tuesday’s meeting to answer questions from the council about the mandate and urge members to keep it in place.

“The delta variant is poised to cause more misery, more disease, an increase in hospitalizations and inflict further damage on the population in the St. Louis region,” Khan said. “I can tell you from consultations from the pandemic task force, which is composed of chief medical officers from the St. Louis area hospital systems, they are extremely worried about being overtaken once again by the burden of this disease.”

Public health experts across the U.S. are debating mask mandates following a staggering rise in coronavirus cases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidelines Tuesday, recommending fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors in areas where there is high and substantial transmission of COVID-19.

Jason Rosenbaum contributed to this report.

Follow Chad on Twitter @iamcdavis

Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.