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St. Louis County scraps mask mandate

St. Louis County Health Director Faisal Khan [center] declares a public health emergency due to the opioid crisis at a press conference in June 2018 in Berkeley.
File photo / Sarah Fentem
St. Louis Public Radio
Faisal Khan, acting director of the St. Louis County Health Department, shown in 2018, rescinded an indoor mask mandate Thursday.

Citing an unfavorable Cole County court ruling, St. Louis County has ended its requirement for masks to be worn in public indoor places.

There’s still a chance that the county council could reimplement the mask mandate, but it may not happen for several weeks.

Acting St. Louis County Health Director Faisal Khan announced on Thursday that he was rescinding the mask mandate. He pointed to the Cole County court decision that declared all COVID-19 restrictions that health departments issued to be null and void as well as the county council’s failure to adopt a mask mandate at its past two meetings.

In a statement, the county health department said its “strong recommendation” for residents to wear masks in public indoor spaces remains unchanged.

“As new COVID cases continue to increase sharply and the Omicron variant of the virus poses an additional threat in the middle of the regular Influenza season, residents should heed the advice of public health: get vaccinated, maintain a safe social distance wherever possible, wash your hands with soap and water frequently and thoroughly and continue to wear masks in all indoor public spaces,” the statement read.

In a statement on Twitter, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, a strong proponent of mask mandates, said: “Because of the Cole County order & the council’s decision not to approve a new face covering order, the Dept. of Public Health director this morning rescinded the prior face covering order.”

“The Health Dept. continues to recommend masks in indoor settings,” Page said in his tweet.“Covid cases are rising.”

The council could adopt a mask mandate, but it would likely have to go through the regular legislative process, which typically can take several weeks to complete. And there has been strong opposition by at least three of the seven council members.

Councilman Ernie Trakas, a south St. Louis County Republican and an opponent of mask mandates, said he’s not sure what the actual impact of council action would be when Page’s administration is not actively enforcing an indoor mask requirement.

“We’d be right back where we were, that we’ve got this ‘mandate’ that by the administration’s own acknowledgment and the county counselor’s own acknowledgement is not going to be enforced,” Trakas said. “I suppose that some businesses can use that as a pretext to require masks. But even in that situation, you go into a Walgreens anywhere in the county and some people are wearing masks and others aren’t.

“I don’t know if a council action anointing some sort of mandate is going to change the reality that we have this statement that claims to be a mandate that the administration on its own acknowledges it’s not going to enforce,” he added.

Earlier this week, Page reiterated that mask mandates are effective — pointing to data in a Missouri Independent story.

“A lot of people will do the right thing when they’re told to do so. And that’s why the mask mandate has been effective,” Page said. “And that’s why in St. Louis County, we have less disease and less death than other places in the state that don’t have a mask mandate in place.”

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.