COVID-19 rules: Local responsibility or not?

Missouri Republicans need to make up their minds: Are COVID-19 regulations a local responsibility, or not?

Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, believes the buck stops with local governments, as you probably know. Missourians have pleaded with the governor to enact a statewide mask mandate, but he has steadfastly refused to act.

“I’m always going to allow those local levels to make those decisions, and I think for the most part they are. All across the state, they understand the situation, and they are implementing policy,” Parson said recently.

Despite calls from public health officials, Parson isn’t going to budge.

That’s why it was interesting to learn that Missouri Rep. David Gregory, a St. Louis-area Republican, wants the state to retain the authority to override local COVID-19 restrictions.

Gregory says he’s heard complaints from constituents that mitigation orders from St. Louis County Executive Sam Page have gone too far. “I’ve just gotten requests from literally thousands of my constituents,” he told The Kansas City Star’s editorial board, “just begging for us to give some sort of oversight.”

Gregory’s answer? He plans to offer a bill that would give a state committee the ability to hear complaints about local COVID-19 regulations, such as the ones in St. Louis County. The committee would rule on the complaints and would have the authority to overturn regulations it disagrees with.

Residents would have to sign a petition asking for state review. Gregory may ask the governor to extend this week’s special session to consider the idea.

Doesn’t that fly in the face of local control?

“I completely see the argument,” Gregory said. “But I just simply don’t agree with it.

“I don’t think a checks-and-balance system from a state-elected legislature, to oversee any type of exercise of power … to be contradictory,” he said. “I think it’s actually required.”

Expecting logical consistency in Jefferson City’s is usually a fool’s errand. Rarely, though, has the contradiction in approach been so obvious and so concerning.

Parson has bitterly opposed a one-size-fits-all approach to COVID-19. Now that local officials are exercising their discretion, state lawmakers want the power to overturn those decisions. They want to have it both ways.

There have been objections to Page’s orders, which have been aggressive. Restaurants cannot offer indoor dining, for example. Bars are closed too, except for carryout and delivery.

In general, no more than 10 people can gather in any one place, and even then must wear masks and remain socially distanced. Employees are asked to work from home if possible.

But the St. Louis regulations do not appear significantly more onerous than those in Kansas City, or Jackson County, or surrounding counties and communities. If they’re too burdensome for St. Louis County residents, they have recourse at the courthouse or the ballot box.

That’s true here, too. And it’s confusing and unnecessary to establish a statewide appeals process just because there is disagreement in St. Louis County. It is, again, a one-size-fits-all approach.

Let’s state the obvious: No one likes COVID-19 restrictions. Everyone will be happy when restaurants and bars reopen, schools hold all classes in-person and masks are unnecessary.

But that day isn’t here. It isn’t here in part because many Missouri counties, primarily in rural areas, have resisted COVID-19 restrictions. That has led to more cases, more sickness — and, because health care in rural areas is sparse, more demand for urban hospitals to treat the disease.

Urban mayors and executives are responding to those challenges with reasonable regulations designed to protect public health. They should not be second-guessed by state legislators, and Gregory’s measure should be quickly rejected.

The Kansas City Star, Nov. 30, 2020

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