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St. Louis County Council Rejects Mask Mandate

Opponents of mask mandates applaud on Aug. 10, 2021 after the St. Louis County Council voted down an ordinance that would have required almost everyone over the age of 5 to wear a mask inside in public places.
Rachel Lippmann
St. Louis Public Radio
Opponents of mask mandates applaud Tuesday after the St. Louis County Council voted down an ordinance that would have required almost everyone over the age of 5 to wear a mask inside in public places.

The St. Louis County Council has rejected an effort to reinstate an indoor mask mandate in the county.

The measure from Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood, would have required anyone over the age of 5, except those with documented medical conditions, to wear a mask in public places. It would have taken effect immediately and lasted until the county reached 70% vaccination rates and a moderate spread of COVID-19, defined bythe Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as having 10 to 50 new cases per 100,000 people over a seven-day period, or a seven-day positivity rate between 5% and 8%.

The voice vote Tuesday night came after two hours of public comment from nearly 60 speakers that again included outright falsehoods and conspiracy theories about the coronavirus. Many others who spoke also referenced the Constitution and the freedom it promised from government tyranny.

"We will not comply with unconstitutional laws," said William Hermanson of Wildwood. "We will not comply with our rights being stolen and oppressed."

Philip Wagenknecht, a veterinarian who has at times provided services to St. Louis County animal control, was the lone speaker in support of the mandate.

"This isn't about freedom," he said. "People are thinking about themselves, and the No. 1 reason for a mask is so we don't transmit to others."

The attendees, the vast majority of whom did not wear masks, applauded wildly when the vote was announced. There were some outbursts from the crowd as Clancy and Councilwoman Kelli Dunaway, D-Chesterfield, the two supporters, spoke. Others in the crowd, security officers, and at times council chair Rita Days demanded order when that happened.

Clancy, who attended the meeting from home because she does not feel safe in the chamber without a mask mandate, said the council owed it to the thousands of children who are too young to be vaccinated but are going to school in person this year.

“Many of our parents and kids need in-person school desperately,” Clancy said. “We’ve heard so many times from parents who were anguished over their children’s mental health, and that mental health crisis is real and incredibly serious. But to get in-person school to work, we need to use proven mitigation measures, simple things that have already been proven to work, like masks. We must always protect all of our children.”

Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-St. Louis County, was unpersuaded.

“The citizens of St. Louis County are sick and tired of government overreach, imposition, manipulation and control of their lives,” he said. “That’s what this, and other proposed mandates, are really about — maintenance and control of power.”

Joining Trakas in opposition were Republicans Mark Harder and Tim Fitch and Democrats Days and Shalonda Webb.

Tuesday’s vote was the latest in a long-running legislative and legal battle over the authority to mandate masks. In late July, both County Executive Sam Page and St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones announced newly reinstated masking requirementsas the delta variant began leading to a surge in cases. Attorney General Eric Schmitt sued, and the council, using new powers granted by state law, votedto block its enforcement. Page claimed a mandate was still in effect. But last week, Circuit Judge Ellen Ribaudo said no, stopping the county from enforcing Page’s order until at least Aug. 17. A hearing in the case is scheduled for that date.

Page also attended the meeting virtually. During his report, he also cited children in urging the council to support the new mandate.

“Too many people remain unvaccinated, and our young children are not able to get the vaccine. The rest must wear the mask for them,” he said. “Wearing a mask protects our future.”

Days, D-Bel Nor, had previously scoldedPage for not including the council in the conversation about mask mandates. She said that while she supported masks and vaccines, there had still not been enough discussion about Clancy’s proposal.

“I call on the county executive to meet with us, all of us, at least once a quarter, so that we can engage in dialogue, not just about COVID but about other issues affecting the citizens of this county,” Days said. “Although he and I meet once a week, I believe open and honest conversations are good for the whole. Our job is to serve our constituents. We can do that by working together. Provide us with accurate and reliable information so that we can do our jobs efficiently.”

This is unlikely to be the last time the council faces COVID-19 masking or vaccination issues. Webb has introduced legislation that would mandate vaccinations or regular testing for all county employees and contractors, which many in the crowd also opposed.

And Ribaudo could rule that Page was acting within his authority when he enacted his mask mandate in July. The state law cited by Schmitt applies to legislation that restricts closing and opening of businesses, and the county’s attorneys have argued that nothing in the mask order limits when businesses can be open or the number of people they can have inside.

There is also an investigation pending into accusations by acting health director Faisal Khan that he was assaulted and called racial slurs after the July 28 meeting. Many of the speakers referenced the investigation in their remarks, with some indicating that Khan had lied about his experience.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

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