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What a recent court ruling means for Missouri’s mask mandates

St. Louis County residents listen in to the county council meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, at the St. Louis County Government building in Clayton, Mo. Despite a mask mandate taking into effect the day prior, the majority of those in attendance did not wear masks, defying the order.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County residents listen in to the county council meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, at the St. Louis County Government building in Clayton, Mo. Despite a mask mandate taking into effect the day prior, the majority of those in attendance did not wear masks, defying the order.

Missouri’s attorney general says a ruling from a Cole County judge invalidates mask mandates for both local health authorities and school districts, but a St. Louis University law professor disagrees, saying it depends on who is issuing the order.

A ruling by a Cole County judge has called into question who can issue mask mandates in Missouri.

Attorney General Eric Schmitt has sent letters to local health authorities and school districts, saying that the ruling invalidates their mandates and that they should no longer be enforced.

So who exactly can issue and enforce mask mandates in Missouri?

St. Louis Public Radio’s Sarah Kellogg spoke with Robert Gatter, a professor at St. Louis University’s School of Law, to answer this question, as well as others about the consequences of this ruling.

How does the ruling from Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green change the ability for local authorities to implement mask mandates or other health orders?

Gatter compared the decision to a game of Jenga, saying it removes some but not all rules for certain entities to issue public health orders, leaving those remaining in a more precarious position. He also said the decision has a larger impact on smaller cities, counties and other areas that only had these regulations to enforce their orders.

“A local public health official could feel that his or her hands are tied. And that if there's a new outbreak, there's nothing to do other than to announce that it has arrived,” Gatter said.

Under this ruling, who exactly can issue and enforce mask mandates in Missouri?

It depends on if that city, county or other authority has another way of enforcing its mandate beyond the regulations that Green declared unconstitutional, Gatter said.

“The City of St. Louis and the County of St. Louis, they are charter subdivisions of the state, a charter city, a charter county. With that comes a great deal of power that's granted by statute to those cities and counties,” Gatter said.

“In other counties where they don't have a County Council or they don't have a Board of Aldermen and they may not have the same kinds of authority that was passed to them in the first place,” Gatter said. “Their public health officials may have been relying exclusively on the regulations that were declared unconstitutional.”

If Schmitt sued municipalities for issuing mask mandates, would he be successful?

“A mask mandate that’s in a small county that doesn’t have that same kind of power that was delegated to it as a smaller county, that public health official was probably relying exclusively on some of those provisions that were declared unconstitutional,” Gatter said. “If a mask mandate is still enforced, then I suspect Eric Schmitt would be successful.”

What does this mean for school districts?

Gatter said schools located within the city of St. Louis are likely OK, because the city’s mandate was OK.

“If you're in the county, then you need to start talking to your lawyers and finding out, ‘Do I have separate authority?'” Gatter said.

Follow Sarah Kellogg on Twitter: @sarahkkellogg

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

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