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St. Louis County Council Expresses Support For Mask Mandate

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page removes his mask before talking with reporters on May, 8, 2020.
Bill Greenblatt I UPI
St. Louis County Executive Sam Page removes his mask before talking with reporters last year. Councilmembers have talking with Page about ending a stalemate over a mask mandate throughout the county.

Updated 6:15 p.m. on Friday with vote on mask mandate resolution

St. Louis County Council members Friday voted to support the county’s controversial mask mandate, which is currently being challenged in county circuit court.

Four Democrats approved a resolution to support the rule, which requires face coverings to be worn in public spaces. Three Republicans abstained from voting, saying the resolution was not legally binding.

County Executive Sam Page told the council that courts would decide whether the resolution had any effect on the enforcement of the mandate.

Page and St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones issued the mask order in late July to stem the spread of the coronavirus. The county council voted down the mandate, saying Page and health officials put it in place without first consulting elected representatives.

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt has challenged the mandate. A preliminary injunction has kept the county from enforcing it.

A statement attributed to Page, and Councilwomen Rita Days, D-Bel Nor, Shalonda Webb, D-St. Louis County, Kelli Dunaway, D-Chesterfield, and Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood, said that the county "has relied on women, especially mothers, to blunt the force of a virus that threatens to overwhelm our healthcare system, shutter our schools, and choke our economy."

"Our message is now clear: wear your mask to fight the virus," the statement said. "And get vaccinated when you are eligible."

Our original story:

After weeks of acrimonious debate, members of the
St. Louis County Council may be closer to consensus on whether to institute an indoor mask mandate.

St. Louis County Councilwoman Rita Days, D-Bel Nor, called a special meeting for 3 p.m. Friday to talk with St. Louis County Executive Sam Page about public health orders around indoor masking. That comes after councilmembers spoke with health department officials and medical professionals about the issue during a Thursday committee hearing, a step that's required under a new state law that restricts COVID-19 health orders.

Days said she’s been talking with Page’s office in an attempt to bring a resolution to the issue of masking.

“Communication is key. Compromise is key. And we have to both be able to do that on both sides,” Days said. “That is what we’re trying to accomplish here.”

Days said that the council wouldn’t likely vote on any legislation regarding mask orders. But it is possible that Page’s administration could issue an order requiring indoor masking and that Days and Councilwoman Shalonda Webb could support keeping that provision in place. Department of Public Health acting director Faisal Khan told councilmembers on Thursday he could soon reissue the health order from late July on masking, but he didn’t give a specific timeline on when that would happen.

“If all things go well, as soon as possible from a public health perspective,” Kahn said. “I can’t comment on the timeline. But from my perspective as a public health professional, as soon as possible.”

Earlier this summer, Days and Webbjoined with the council’s three Republicans in rescinding Page’s mask mandate. A judge ruled earlier this month that, at least for now, that council action means the county doesn’t have a mask mandate in place.

Days had said she disapproved of how Page went forward with the mask mandate without input from the council. But she stressed that she’s not against masking or vaccination, and wants to come up with a comprehensive strategy to clamp down on COVID-19 — including enacting policies that encourage vaccinations and encourage healthier choices.

She has spoken out against versions of a mask mandate with strict enforcement mechanisms that could include fines or imprisonment of individuals. Department of Public Health officials said they did not plan on leveling punishments on people who violate the mask orders, but added they may send particularly egregious incidents over to the county counselor’s office — such as spitting or intentionally coughing on someone.

“We’re having conversations. And we’re continuing to talk about it,” Days said. “And as long as we have conversations and continue to talk about it, we may be able to come to some resolution on this. We’ve said all along. I’ve had no problems with masks. I have no problems with vaccines. None of that. I wear my mask, and I’ve already been vaccinated.”

St. Louis County Council Chairwoman Lisa Clancy (left) and County Councilman Ernie Trakas (center) both have proposals to change the county's panhandling regulations.
File photo I Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Councilman Ernie Trakas, shown in 2019, second from right, has been a vocal opponent of mask mandates.

'Support critical prevention measures'

Thursday’s meeting featured testimony from personnel from the Department of Public Health and at least one representative from an area hospital. Hilary Babcock, who serves as medical director of infection prevention and occupational infection prevention for BJC Healthcare, said masking could go a long way toward slowing down the spread of COVID-19.

“We therefore continue to support critical prevention measures to keep our community and our patients safe,” Babcock said. “Vaccination is saving lives every single day. But vaccination takes time. If every eligible person got a first dose of a two-dose vaccine series tomorrow, it would take three to four weeks before they completed the series and another two for their immune system to build up to full protection.”

But several Republican councilmembers questioned whether a mask mandate would make much of a difference if people weren’t required to wear specific face coverings — such as N95 masks.

“If we care about the people in St. Louis County, why aren’t we mandating a N95 mask or better and leave it at that?” said Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin. “Why would we take anything less than that? It’s like saying ‘operate with this knife, but it’s a little rusty. But it will still make a cut.’ But it’s a rusty knife in a surgery. Why would you even recommend that?”

In response, Spring Schmidt with the St. Louis County Department of Health said: “If someone has access to a N95 and wants to wear them, that’s fine. But we also don’t think that we should make public health orders that are any more restrictive or specific than necessary.”

“There is choice,” Schmidt said. “I wear cloth masks. I wear surgical masks. I have a N95 mask. I don’t wear it very often because most of my interactions are with the general public just conducting my business as normal.”

Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-St. Louis County, sought to adjourn the meeting, in part, because he felt it was called under false pretenses. He also said that the meeting was rushed and that members of the council didn’t have time to prepare questions or secure particular witnesses.

“It is obvious that this meeting is a farce scheduled only to provide the appearance of honest inquiry and deliberation,” he said.

Trakas’ bid to pull the plug on the meeting was unsuccessful.

Councilman Tim Fitch, R-St. Louis County, said the nearly four-hour discussion on Thursday was the most thorough discussion about a mask mandate since Page's July order. He said that Page may have been able to avoid the impasse had held a similar meeting before issuing the order.

"But we didn't get that chance," Fitch said. "You all just threw it out there and said 'here's the mandate — live with it.' ... That's why we're in this position now. This could have been addressed over a month ago."

St. Louis County Councilwoman Kelli Dunaway
File photo / David Kovaluk / St. Louis Public Radio
Councilwoman Kelli Dunaway, D-Chesterfield, says a mask mandate is imperative with the spread of the delta variant, especially with so many children unable to get vaccinated.

Thawing relations?

The masking dispute showcased the longstanding divide between Webb and Days and Councilwomen Kelli Dunaway, D-Chesterfield, and Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood. Clancy and Dunaway have been generally supportive of Page, while Days and Webb have joined with at least two Republican members to form a majority coalition against Page.

Tuesday’s meeting did showcase, perhaps, that there’s a concerted effort to bridge the divide between the two factions of the council’s Democratic caucus.

“And whether it's easy or hard, whether we agree or disagree… we want to show that we can work together, that we don't have to be ugly towards one another,” Webb said.

Days added on Tuesday: “Perhaps it is my legislative experience that leads me to think that compromise is the best outcome.”

“We are looking for a comprehensive approach to dealing with the pandemic. One size fits all, is not the solution,” Days said. “This approach includes vaccinations, masks, and addressing comorbidity issues which run rampant in our community.”

Days and Webb’s comments came after Dunaway made an impassioned plea for mask mandates, primarily as a way to protect schoolchildren who aren’t eligible to be vaccinated at this point in time.

“We're hearing reports of thousands of quarantines in schools around the country, schools even shutting down over outbreaks,” Dunaway said. “Don't we want to do everything we can to prevent that from happening here? If our children can wear a mask all day long, the grown-ups can put one on, too. If the children don't like it, they suck it up and do it anyway because they'd rather be living out there at school and at home stuck inside.

“Now it's time to listen to the parents of young children, not yet eligible for the vaccine,” she added. “You see, we are no longer at our breaking point. We are broken.”

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum 

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.
Sarah is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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