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Local Governments Should Decide On Coronavirus Reopening, Says Salem Congressman

Rolla City Hall picture taken 4-16-20
Jonathan Ahl | St. Louis Public Radio
The city of Rolla implemented a stay-at-home order before the state. Rep. Jason Smith says cities and counties should decide when to reopen businesses.

While President Donald Trump is going back and forth on setting a date to lift stay-at-home orders and reopen the economy, one of his staunchest supporters in Congress said it shouldn’t be a federal or state government decision.

U.S. Rep. Jason Smith, a Republican from Salem, said the coronavirus pandemic is affecting different places in different ways, and local governments are best equipped to decide when to ease off on quarantining and let businesses reopen.

“What works in St. Louis County doesn’t work in Phelps County,” Smith said. “So I think that in reopening, all the decisions should be closest to the people, and that’s what works best.”

His 8th Congressional District in southeast Missouri is one of only 75 in the nation defined as “rural” by the U.S. Census Bureau, and, even then, Smith said within his district there are big differences in the spread of coronavirus.

According to the state health department, Scott, Perry and Cape Girardeau counties each have more than 30 reported cases, while Shannon, Texas and Dent counties have yet to report their first cases. All six are in Smith’s district.

Smith said rural areas with less dense population and few to no cases should be able to go back to normal sooner if the cities and counties think it’s the right decision.

“I don’t think the federal government should be the one to say, ‘You’re open for business,’” Smith said. “I don’t think it’s the state’s job, either."

Missouri was one of the last states to issue a stay-at-home order. Gov. Mike Parson maintained for weeks that the decision should be left up to local community leaders. When he did issue a statewide order on April 3, he said the decision weighed heavily on his mind. 

“It is having the power of the governor to pick winners and losers,” he said. “And whether I feel it is appropriate for me to use the power by determining who is essential and who is not. This power is something I think should be rare for government.”

On Thursday he extended the order until May 3 but said he expects some businesses to be able to reopen on May 4. St. Louis and St. Louis County leaders extended their stay-at-home orders indefinitely on Thursday with a planned review by May 15.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

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Jonathan is the Rolla correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.