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Coronavirus Looms Large In Democratic Primary For St. Louis County Executive

Medical workers collect a sample from a patient at Mercy Health's drive-through coronavirus test center in Chesterfield in March. St. Louis County Executive Sam Page wants to purchase more tests for the county.
File Photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Medical workers collect a sample from a patient at Mercy Health's drive-through coronavirus test center in Chesterfield in March.

If there’s any proof that St. Louis County government can be a vital force in the lives of everyday people, it’s the coronavirus crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic prompted St. Louis County Executive Sam Page to take unprecedented action. These moves stoked stark emotions: Some felt Page’s actions were too onerous, while others contended they were inadequate.

Page, however, said his decisions made a difference in combating a historic health care emergency that hit the county harder than anywhere else in the state.

The county’s handling of the coronavirus crisis could become an even more significant campaign issue as cases continue to rise across the region and around Missouri. And it also will affect how voters cast their ballots on Aug. 4.

Sobering numbers

Democratic St. Louis County Executive candidates Sam Page, Jake Zimmeran, Mark Mantovani and Jamie Tolliver
Credit File photos
Democratic St. Louis County Executive candidates Sam Page, Jake Zimmeran, Mark Mantovani and Jamie Tolliver

More people have been diagnosed with or died of COVID-19 in St. Louis County than any other place in Missouri. As of July 20, more than 9,100 people tested positive for the virus, and 610people have died.

COVID-19’s impact prompted Page to shut down or restrict certain businesses. Some of the county’s actions occurred before Gov. Mike Parson issued his stay-at-home order. And as coronavirus cases began to rise again over the summer, Page instituted a mask mandate and placed restrictions on youth sports.

At a press availability on Monday, Page said that these decisions made a big difference in dealing with a public health emergency. 

"Our efforts have clearly put us in a better place than the rest of the state and the rest of the country," Page said. "We did not fully roll back our business guidelines. We stayed at 50 percent capacity, and we issued a mandatory mask public health notice early. But a large part of our success in the community depends on acceptance of those guidelines and those rules."

Page’s opponents in the Democratic primary, though, have a less favorable view of his actions. St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman said the county executive didn’t push aggressively enough in the early stage of the outbreak to make testing available in north St. Louis County, which is largely Black. Medical experts have said the coronavirus pandemic hit Black residents in the St. Louis area particularly hard.

“Every public health crisis has hit people in vulnerable minority communities harder than those of us who live in the central corridor,” Zimmerman said. “And if we don't acknowledge that privilege, then we're never gonna face it. And that's exactly what has happened with this administration. By favoring the privileged and the affluent first, this administration helps to create the situation we now live in.”

That sentiment has been echoed by a number of Black elected officials who have either endorsed Zimmerman or retired businessman Mark Mantovani. Asked about that criticism, Page replied that the county has “to understand that after decades of racial and economic segregation, and struggles in North County that there's a lot of frustration.”

“But the truth is that we had trouble with testing everywhere in America,” Page said. “We had trouble with testing everywhere in the county when it first hit. And if you look at the ZIP code maps, we did an enormous amount of testing in North County, we had enormous amount of positive test results in North County." 

University City resident Jamie Tolliver said that the county began reopening too early, adding that there’s “still no cure, there's still no vaccine, there's still no actual health care protections.” 

“I think that lifting it so that places of employment can't be sued when people come back to work. That’s not OK,” Tolliver said. “When we go back to work, we put ourselves at greater risk, and how are we then being protected?” 

Mantovani, a retired business executive, said he would have communicated differently with area businesses about when they could reopen.

“If you say, look, we're looking at this metric. And this metric today is x. And if it is y in two weeks, this will probably be our unfortunate next step,” Mantovani said. “But that sort of communication, I think has been wholly lacking. And I think it has created consternation, distrust in a way that didn't have to exist today.” 

Asked about the criticism over how he handled business closures, Page said, “We listen to public health experts, medical doctors, our health systems, and we made decisions with our guides, and they were hard decisions.” 

Money matters

One area where Page’s opponents have found fault is the decision to give him spending authority over $173.5 million from federal coronavirus funds. The St. Louis County Council voted 4-3 to give Page that power, with the four Democratic members in favor and the three Republicans opposed.

“I think that it could have been done better,” Tolliver said. “There should have been some sort of checks and balances process that was done.”

Mantovani and Zimmerman criticized numerous aspects of that decision, including allowing county council members to assist with doling out small-business funds and the lack of checks and balances to Page’s decision-making.

“I say that when the leadership of Jackson County and Kansas City was presented with the same faustian bargain, they said, not just no, but hell no,” Zimmerman said. “That is not how it's done. Because this is a democracy. And in a democracy, we have accountability.”

Added Mantovani: “I think this was an effort at trying to retain unilateral control over those funds. And my belief in our system of government suggests that you want a strong legislative oversight.” 

Page said that move was necessary in order to quickly respond to the crisis. He added he has given county council members opportunities to make suggestions on where the coronavirus money should go.

“There was a relatively urgent need in the community to get resources in the hands of people who needed help,” Page said. And no one wanted a two-week delay before or three-week delay for an appropriations bill so we could serve a need.” 

Absentee ballot surge

COVID-19 will not only affect St. Louis County residents’ decision-making on Aug. 4, but it will also change how they’ll cast their ballots.

The upcoming primary election will be the first contest with new rules for absentee and mail-in voting. County residents who are 65 or older or have certain health conditions can now vote absentee without a notary. Anyone else can also vote absentee, but it must be notarized.

Eric Fey, St. Louis County’s Democratic elections director, said around 85,000 people have applied for request absentee and mail-in ballots for the primary election. That would be an all-time record for the county.

“We have hired extra temporary employees to process the applications,” Fey said. “But where it really comes down to the critical point is when we start to open the absentee ballots. We can start five days before the election. So we have to make sure we recruit enough ballot openers because the ballots have to be opened by partisan teams. So for the June election we recruited 30 opening teams. That's 60 people, and I think we'll probably increase that amount for the August election.”

All four candidates say that COVID-19 has also dramatically affected how they get the word out about their campaigns. Several candidates have had events via video conferencing such as Zoom. Campaign committees supporting Page, Mantovani and Zimmerman have spent more than $1 million from April to June, including sizable purchases on television ads.

Whoever emerges out of the Democratic primary will face the winner of the GOP race between Paul Berry III and Ed Golterman. The victor in November will serve as county executive through 2022. 

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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