Missouri Lawmakers Take Aim At Local Coronavirus Restrictions
Some Missouri lawmakers want to curtail local governments' ability to enact COVID-19 restrictions. This comes amid some GOP outcry over indoor dining limitations and reduced bar hours.
Updated at 9:40 p.m. Dec. 1 with information on the county council's resolution against Page's restrictions
Missouri lawmakers are pushing back against local COVID-19 restrictions, in reaction to St. Louis County Executive Sam Page curtailing indoor dining at restaurants.
It’s a move that Republican lawmakers say is necessary to protect businesses that have been harmed by health orders limiting how they can operate. The idea, though, chafes against Gov. Mike Parson’s policy of giving counties and cities leeway to put in place tougher restrictions against the virus than the state has. And it follows Page's election last month as county executive, after a campaign in which his response to the pandemic was front and center.
With COVID-19 cases rising and more people heading to area hospitals, Page announced several weeks ago that he was barring county restaurants from having indoor dining. That decision outraged restaurant owners and a number of Republican officials, such as state Sen. Andrew Koenig of Manchester.
During a press conference Tuesday in front of Satchmo’s Bar and Grill in Chesterfield, Koenig laid out elements of a bill he plans to file before the 2021 session. Among other things, it would bar local governments from enacting any “public health orders, ordinances, rules, or regulations during a declared state of emergency and pertaining to such state of emergency” for a cumulative period longer than 14 days in a two-year period. State lawmakers would have to pass a resolution to go beyond that time period.
Koenig’s bill also states that a legislative body, such as a county council, would have to approve any COVID-19 restriction. It would bar any COVID-19 restrictions on religious institutions or gatherings on private residential property. And it would offer businesses affected by shutdowns relief on their property taxes.
“We happen to be living in a constitutional republic, where we have separation of powers,” Koenig said. “No one person should have the power to make law and shut our businesses down.”
In addition to a number of GOP lawmakers, Koenig was joined at the press conference by Missouri Restaurant Association CEO Bob Bonney. He said suspending indoor dining in St. Louis County has had devastating economic consequences.
“We were hopeful that nine months into this pandemic, we could collectively recognize that there is an inherent desire for humans to congregate and often over food,” Bonney said. “Shutting down dine-in service removes the ability to accommodate that need in a highly regulated, sanitized, seat-limited and appropriately spaced seating. Instead, it will drive that behavior to innumerable residential social gatherings, which are likely less safe.”
The association has joined more than 50 restaurants in suing to try to block the restrictions. Satchmo’s is one of a number of restaurants that have received warnings about violating the county’s health order.
Later on Tuesday, the county health department moved to close four restaurants, including Satchmo's, for violating the indoor dining restrictions. In addition to Satchmo's, health department spokesman Christopher Ave said the county took action against Bartolino’s South, Final Destination and OT’s Bar. A fifth restaurant, Acapulco, will be given notice of suspension if it continues to operate with indoor dining.
Ave said each restaurant was given three written warnings before their permits to operate were revoked. He added that the eateries have 10 days to request a hearing.
It was evident on Tuesday night that not everyone on the St. Louis County Council agrees with how Page is navigating the COVID-19 pandemic.
The council passed a resolution on a 4-3 vote undoing many of the COVID-19 restrictions, including occupancy limits for businesses and the ban on indoor dining at restaurants. It keeps in place the mask mandate, but does away with the mask requirement while working out at gyms or playing sports.
Council members Rita Days, D-Bel Nor, Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, Ernie Trakas, R-South St. Louis County, and Tim Fitch, R-St. Louis County voted for the resolution. Councilwomen Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood, Rochelle Walton Gray, D-Black Jack, and Kelli Dunaway, D-Chesterfield, voted against it.
Page spokesman Doug Moore said the resolution is nonbinding and “expressed the council’s opinion about public health restrictions.” But he added “the resolution does not have the force of law.”
“St. Louis County will continue to follow the County Charter as well as the state statutes and regulations that empower the public health director to issue orders necessary to protect people from COVID-19,” Moore said.
Fitch, though, disagreed with the idea that the resolution was symbolic, adding that council members consulted with outside lawyers on the issue. He said that a court would likely decide about the resolution’s impact, perhaps with the previous litigation filed by the Missouri Restaurant Association.
“At the end of the day, he doesn’t just get to say it’s nonbinding,” Fitch said. “That would be up to a judge to decide that.”
Before the vote was taken, Trakas said he had concerns about the effectiveness of a resolution versus an ordinance.
“I think it is preferable that we pass an ordinance and I have so stated to my colleagues,” Trakas said. “Nonetheless, this is an important vote because it allows us to state clearly where we stand on this issue. Many of my constituents are frustrated by the emergency health restrictions. They understand that things need to be restricted. But they also believe in personal responsibility.”
Dunaway said that the council members supporting the resolution were speaking for a “very loud minority in St. Louis County that has simply had enough of this pandemic and want the freedom to live like we aren’t in a global pandemic.”
She noted that both Page and herself won decisively in the November general election.
“So can we please stop this and just get back to the work of governing and making sure that we are prepared to move into the future?” Dunaway said.
For his part, Page said he would maintain the course of action he has been following.
In a statement issued after the press conference on Tuesday, Page said he “will continue to support the recommendations of our public health directors and the Pandemic Task Force.”
“Hospitals are overrun, and our health care workers are begging for reasonable public health decisions,” Page said. “The election is over. Stop politicizing the pandemic."
St. Louis County is the only Missouri governmental jurisdiction in the region that has placed restrictions on indoor dining in recent weeks. Other places, like the city of St. Louis and St. Charles County, have declined to issue similar regulations.
When asked on Monday about whether the county’s restrictions were having an impact when other local counties or cities were not following suit, Page said it’s too early to tell.
“It’s been a couple of weeks. We know it takes a couple of weeks to bend the curve,” Page said. “We’ve seen some flattening in the cases over the past four or five days. But we also know that testing has been down some over the Thanksgiving holiday. And we don’t know yet the impact of gatherings around Thanksgiving.”
Page said on Monday that lawmakers file hundreds of bills every year and that only a few of them actually make it over the legislative finish line.
“This legislation does provide the opportunity to discuss these difficult decisions around public health orders,” Page said. “But what I’ve seen around St. Louis County, and even across the country, is that the vast majority of residents understand the difficult sacrifices we are making, including restrictions on restaurants and bars for indoor dining and recognizing that these are difficult but necessary decisions.”
Page won an additional two years in office by soundly defeating Republican candidate Paul Berry III. He also emerged victorious in a hard-fought Democratic primary in which his leadership during the pandemic was the central issue.
Asked if those elections showcased that county residents support Page’s actions during the COVID-19 pandemic, Koenig replied: “There’s a lot of people who probably do support what he’s doing. But we govern under a set of laws, and we have a constitutional republic.”
“And we don’t live in a society that’s mob rule,” Koenig said.
But it’s not just Page who has previously had a cool reaction to efforts for the state to clamp down on what local governments can do during the COVID-19 pandemic. Parson has repeatedly stressed that cities and counties should have the ability to enact curbs that are more stringent than the state's.
In fact, during an appearance with Page in late May, Parson responded to criticism of the county executive’s actions from residents who didn’t like his business restrictions by saying: “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 at the time. “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.”
Asked for reaction Tuesday to the proposed state legislation, Kelli Jones, a spokeswoman for Parson, said in an email that the governor expects the legislature to address this issue in January.
Koenig said he has spoken with Parson’s staff about his legislation. But he hasn’t gone over all the details since they were finalized on Monday.
“I’ve been working on the language very hard,” Koenig said. “We have had five different drafts with multiple changes in each draft. I’m sure there’s going to be changes to the bill. But I think it’s in a pretty good place right now.”
Lawmakers could start prefiling legislation Tuesday. Assuming Parson doesn’t expand the current special session to accommodate Koenig’s legislation, lawmakers can take up the proposal when they reconvene in January.
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum
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