CoronavirusNewsPoliticsThe NorthSider

Opposition arises to county, city mask mandates

CITY HALL  –  St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones and County Executive Dr. Sam Page said Monday that they were reinstating an indoor mask mandate requirement immediately because of the skyrocketing number of new COVID-19 cases. 

“At the urging of local health experts with the Pandemic Task Force, County Executive Dr. Sam Page and I took action by instating a mask mandate to stop the spread of COVID-19,” Jones said. 

But there were questions about whether Page was exceeding his authority and whether Jones was using a mask proclamation to spend COVID-19 relief money not yet approved.

Third District St. Louis County Councilman Tim Fitch said the County Council was being left out of the decision. He promised to challenge the county mandate at Tuesday’s County Council meeting.

Fitch emphasized the importance of getting vaccinated. But he said, “The conversation we’re going to have on the floor of the County Council is not about whether you should wear this or not. The conversation that we’re having on the County Council tomorrow night is, does the County Council have the authority – or his health director – to issue these mandates?”

The County Council has to approve mandates, under a new state law, Fitch said.

In a statement issued Monday, St. Louis Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed said he supported the new mask mandate. But he expressed concern that the proclamation could be used to spend federal COVID-19 money that hasn’t yet been approved. 

In their news conference at St. Louis City Hall, Jones and Reed focused on the need.

Jones said the reality of the virus had changed from a year ago. She noted that on Sunday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was considering saying that masks and vaccinations go hand-in-hand. And Page said the masks had prevented thousands of people from getting sick or dying. 

When Page and Jones announced in May that they were easing some public health guidelines, including wearing masks, “We did so because the case rate was headed in the right direction,” Page said. “But the Delta variant has thrown us a curveball. It’s highly transmissible, and it’s now jeopardizing our progress.” 

The total number of new COVID-19 cases in St. Louis County increased from 40 a day on June 1 to 218 a day on Saturday. The percentage of positive results in testing in St. Louis County jumped from 2.9 percent on June 1 to 9.9 percent on Saturday.

“These numbers are too alarming to ignore. We as health care professionals and as elected officials can’t stand idly by while this new Delta variant takes more and more victims,” Page said. “Masks have become a symbol of a political divide in our country, but they’re not a bridge too far, as some might say. Rather, they put the virus in the slow lane, and give us time to get more people vaccinated.”

The county and city orders say that all people age 5 and over must wear face coverings over their noses and mouths while in indoor and enclosed public buildings and while riding public transportation.

Exceptions include those who are eating or drinking.

A prroclamation by Jones and city Acting Director of Health & Hospitals/Health Commissioner Dr. Frederick L. Echols declared that the city may incur any expense to fight the virus.

Reed said in his statement, “If the true intention of this health order is requiring people to slow the spread of COVID-19,  then there should be no reason to include provisions for spending funds circumventing the appropriations process and the Board of Aldermen.”

“The county’s health order only speaks to a mask mandate and is not an order to justify unchecked spending,” Reed continued. “This oversteps the City Charter’s emergency health spending authority that is in the charter. It’s an obvious overreach and abuse of power.”

A bill approving the spending of $168 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding is stalled over wording for a portion authorizing $33 million in economic development spending in north St. Louis.

Jim Merkel

southsidemerkel@gmail.com Born and raised in the St. Louis area, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of five books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. The latest is Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis with Miss Jenny the Cat. For more about Jim, visit www.jimmerkelthewriter.com.

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