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Parson Defends Decision To Give Local Government More Power On Coronavirus Restrictions

Gov. Mike Parson answers a reporter's question at a press conference in Clayton on May 29, 2020.
David Kovaluk I St. Louis Public Radio
Gov. Mike Parson answers a reporter's question at a press conference in Clayton on May 29, 2020.

Gov. Mike Parson said it made sense to give local governments like St. Louis County power to enact stricter coronavirus-related regulations than the rest of the state, saying a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for every corner of the state.

This comes as some St. Louis County residents have been criticizing County Executive Sam Page’s administration for not reopening certain businesses, such as gyms and fitness centers.

Parson was at Page’s regular press conference on Friday to, among other things, talk about how the state and county are working together to protect residents at nursing homes. The governor was also in town to pass out masks with members of the St. Louis religious community.

Parson’s stay-at-home order explicitly allowed local governments to enact more stringent restrictions than the rest of the state. That meant St. Louis and St. Louis County didn’t have to relax their own stay-at-home orders right away on May 4 — and could be more gradual in removing restrictions.

“I’m trying to govern the entire state of Missouri,” Parson said. “And what happens in Douglas County, Missouri, is much different than St. Louis County.”

There have been more cases of COVID-19 in St. Louis County than any other county in the state. And the county is also where there’s been the most deaths. 

But Page’s decision-making hasn’t been universally popular. He and members of the St. Louis County Council have been barraged with criticism from residents who were upset that places like gyms and fitness centers haven’t been allowed to open. Page has set a June 15 deadline to open those types of establishments.

For instance, earlier this month, Des Peres resident Jeff Kramer wrote in public comments to the county council that, “COVID-19 might be a real virus, but I am appalled that you have not allowed all businesses to reopen by now.” 

And Fenton resident Patrick Hoatlin wrote: “Do you have the courage to look a business owner in the eye and tell them their business is non-essential? I doubt it.”

Asked what message he would send to residents upset that the county is not opening up sooner, Parson replied: “I don’t like the federal government coming in and telling me what to do as a governor. I don’t want to be telling these cities and counties exactly how to run their business.”

“They know better on the ground here,” Parson said. “And the other thing is they’re elected. There’s consequences to elections. We’re all responsible for what we do every day as elected officials. And that’s why voting is so important. That’s why those decisions we make, when they’re good decisions or bad decisions, you’re judged upon them."

Page said, “We have a completely different situation in the St. Louis region, especially St. Louis County, than the rest of the state.”

“And it’s appropriate for us to have different standards and guidelines as we move forward,” Page said. “We expect by the middle of June, just about all the remaining businesses and venues will be open with restrictions and guidelines. Sometime through the rest of the month, we’ll be on a similar trajectory with the rest of the region and the rest of the state.”

Decision coming on absentee balloting

Meanwhile, Parson reiterated on Friday that he’ll make a decision next week on whether to sign a bill expanding absentee balloting throughout the state.

The Legislature passed a bill on the final day of its session allowing people over age 65 or with certain health conditions to cast an absentee ballot this year without a notary. It also allowed anyone fearful of contracting COVID-19 to vote through the mail — but only if that ballot is notarized.

While emphasizing that his legal team is looking through the legislation, Parson said he wanted to make a quick decision so that election officials are ready to implement the changes in time for the August elections — especially since the bill goes into effect right away. Missourians can begin to cast absentee ballots for the Aug. 4 primary on June 23.

“We’ve got to make a decision on that just to get the process in place by August, so that’s why we’ve got to make the decision next week, frankly,” Parson said. “That’s in legal counsel right now. And we’re making sure everything is where it’s supposed to be in the legislation.”

If Parson signs Sen. Dan Hegeman’s bill, it’s expected that local election authorities will see a jump in absentee ballot applications. St. Louis County saw more than 76,000 absentee ballot requests for Tuesday’s municipal election, an all-time record that surpasses higher-turnout affairs like presidential elections.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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