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Judge Temporarily Blocks St. Louis County Indoor Mask Mandate

Hundreds of people, mostly unmasked, gathered at a St. Louis County Council meeting last week to protest a new mask mandate. St. Louis health officials confirmed this weekend that an attendee from St. Louis tested positive for the coronavirus, and they worry the event may spark a wider outbreak of the virus.
File photo / Chad Davis
St. Louis Public Radio
Hundreds of people, mostly unmasked, gather at a St. Louis County Council meeting last week to protest a new mask mandate. On Tuesday, Circuit Judge Ellen Ribaudo issued a temporary restraining order blocking the county's mask mandate.

Updated at 10:35 p.m. Aug. 3 with a new mask mandate proposal and comments from the county council meeting

A circuit judge Tuesday issued a temporary restraining order blocking St. Louis County’s indoor mask mandate — which only went into effect last week.

Representatives for Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt and St. Louis County argued in court Tuesday morning. The attorney general’s office said the county’s mask order violated a new state law that restricts local leaders from issuing public health orders for businesses, churches and schools. County representatives said the mandate didn’t violate the new law because mask mandates don’t restrict or close businesses.

The restraining order, issued by Judge Ellen Ribaudo on Tuesday afternoon, will remain in effect until at least another hearing Aug. 17.

The ruling comes a week after County Executive Sam Page and the St. Louis County Department of Public Health initiated the mandate following a rise in coronavirus cases. The St. Louis County Council then voted the next day 5-2 to reverse the mask mandate during a contentious public meeting.

Page said the mandate remained in effect until a judge ruled, while the council majority said their vote eliminated the mandate. The City of St. Louis instituted a mask mandate at the same time as the county.

Councilman Tim Fitch, R-St. Louis County, said he supports the restraining order.

The council’s all ears,” Fitch said. “Let’s sit down with this county executive, sit down with this health department, tell us why you want to do what you want to do instead of working around us.”

Ribaudo said the council may have the authority to strike down the restriction. The judge called a temporary restraining order necessary because Page and the county council are arguing what should be enforced.

“If this court were not to act in this moment the residents who support the face covering measure and those who oppose the measure are left to their own devices in deciding whether or not to wear a mask while in public places,” Ribaudo wrote in her order.

Schmitt praised Tuesday’s ruling, calling it a “huge win” for St. Louis County residents.

“This is an important, hard-fought victory, but our fight against unreasonable and unconstitutional government overreach continues,” Schmitt said in a statement.

Ribaudo said the decision is based on the mandate’s legality in reference to the new state law.

“The court notes that although some will take this court's ruling as a victory there is no victory while the COVID-19 virus remains a significant threat to public health and there is no question it remains a significant threat to public health,” Ribaudo said. “There can be no victory until the residents of St. Louis County and the State of Missouri are no longer risking their health, well being and lives at the hands of the COVID-19 virus.”

The leader of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, Dr. Clay Dunagan, on Tuesday reiterated concerns over the rapid spread of the delta variant and worries that more hospitalizations will put more pressure on the health care system.

“Our nurses, our doctors, our therapists, all of those who work in health care and even the facilities that we deliver health care in are getting stretched, and we can’t sustain the current increase,” Dunagan said.

In St. Louis, the number of people who are so sick with COVID that they need to be hospitalized is now four times what it was just six weeks ago at the beginning of the summer, he said.

"That’s more cases than we’ve had at any point since the middle of February,” Dunagan said.

Page said in a tweet that he recommends people continue to wear masks.

“We are disappointed in the judge’s decision as more and more mask requirements are put in place across the country to help slow this deadly virus,” Page wrote. “The CDC recommends wearing masks in public places and we ask everyone to follow that guidance as we continue our vaccine efforts.”

On Tuesday night, Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood, introduced legislation that would implement a mask mandate. After requesting a hearing, Clancy noted that many people in favor of her proposal didn’t show up at Tuesday’s meeting because they’re fearful they would catch COVID-19.

“I received approximately 790 e-mails from people all over St. Louis County who are in favor of a mask mandate,” Clancy said, “many of whom said that they do not feel that the council chambers are safe for them right now. They do not want to risk attending another superspreader event.”

Republican Councilmen Fitch and Ernie Trakas said they would not support a mask mandate.

“If you didn’t notice when you came in here, I had a mask on for most of the night,” Fitch said. “That wasn’t because Sam Page told me I had to. ... That’s because it’s a choice. That’s what this is about for me. It’s about a choice. It’s not about the government jamming it down your throat and telling you that you have to do it.”

Clancy requested a vote on her bill at next week’s council meeting. If one of the council’s four Democrats joins with the council’s three Republicans to vote against Clancy’s proposal, it will fail.

More than 40 speakers during the public forum section of the meeting criticized Page for pushing the mandate. Several speakers also floated unfounded conspiracy theories about how the COVID-19 vaccine amounted to genetic engineering — or that it was a plot to enrich people like Bill Gates.

Other speakers were upset with Dr. Faisal Khan, acting health department director, over a letter accusing some in the crowd last week of physical and verbal abuse. Several videos have come out over the past few days that conflict with his contention that he was shoulder bumped or pushed. Khan told St. Louis on the Air’s Sarah Fenske that he stands by the account in his letter.

“This has to stop,” said Benjamin Brown, a restaurant owner and a candidate for state Senate. “And the continued politicization of our health department is destructive and irresponsible.”

Added Jason Moore: “The media exposure that he’s given to the St. Louis County residents, especially a lot of the folks that I’ve gotten to know here over the past year and a half, was abominable.”

“And I would like to know is he still employed tonight? Has he offered his resignation?” Moore asked. “Dr. Page: Are you going to accept his resignation? Are you going to give him his pink slip?”

Khan has given no indication he intends to resign. When asked by Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, if he would accept Khan’s resignation, Page replied: “I’m embarrassed by the way Dr. Khan was treated last week, and I stand with Dr. Khan.”

“We will pursue the investigation by St. Louis County, and we will announce those results when we’re completed with it,” Page said.

Harder then asked Page if he thought Khan was assaulted at last week’s meeting. Page said: “I believe what Dr. Khan told me his experience was, as do many, many people in our community. And we’ll wait and see what the investigation tells us.”

Follow Chad on Twitter: @iamcdavis

Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.
Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.