St. Louis Housing Defense Collective Anti-Eviction Rally

Housing advocates rallied outside 22nd Judicial Court to demand that the city take action to avoid a looming housing crisis on Tue. July 7, 2020. Photo by Wiley Price / St. Louis American

Evictions are a public health crisis, and Presiding Judge Rex Burlison of the 22nd Judicial Circuit Court should issue an order to suspend evictions until October 1, said the 12-member board that advises the city’s acting health director, Dr. Fredrick Echols.

The Joint Boards of Health and Hospitals voted to recommend that Burlison issue the order during an emergency meeting on Thursday, August 6 at 8 a.m. 

At about 3 p.m. on August 6, Burlison issued an order to suspend evictions until September 1. Burlison had already halted evictions through a verbal agreement with Sheriff Vernon Betts on August 3, following The American’s July 31 investigation. However, the board wanted to see an official order with an end date.

In addition, the board said large venues in the City of St. Louis must scale back to 50% capacity to help reduce the region’s surging COVID-19 hospital admissions.

“We have not moved anywhere near where we should be,” said Dr. Will Ross, the board’s chairman. “There are not a whole lot of options here. Something has to be done.” 

On August 12, Echols signed a health order that includes the board’s suggestion, as well as scales back the capacity of restaurants and bars to 50% percent, effective at 12 a.m. on August 13.

The board also voted to support Echols’ decision to forego fall school sports.

Since July 6, St. Louis’ major healthcare systems have reported “troubling” numbers of new hospital COVID patients. 

“We have too much virus spreading in the community,” said Dr. Alex Garza, incident commander for the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, in his August 5 briefing. “We are far from out of the woods. There is a lot on the line here, but it’s not going to slow down until everyone steps up and does the right thing.”

On August 4, the task force reported 55 new hospital admissions in a single day. Since August 2, the seven-day average of new hospital admissions has remained above 40 — and on Wednesday was 44 — which is well into the task force’s Red Zone. 

“That’s when we start to become really concerned with the number of people coming into our hospitals,” Garza said.

The city’s health order on large venues states that Echols would revise the capacity limits if the number of new hospital admissions exceeds 40 per day for three of four consecutive days or reaches a seven-day moving average of 35 new COVID-related admissions. Those thresholds have been reached.

“We continue to see an increase in positive cases in the City of St. Louis, particularly among young people who often times show no symptoms,” Mayor Lyda Krewson said. “And while they might not always have the underlying health conditions that can land them in the hospital for an extended period of time, they still present a significant risk of infecting others. Our intent here is to ensure the maximum number of people and businesses take prudent precautions to reduce the exposure to, and slow the spread of, COVID-19.”

St. Louis County Executive Dr. Sam Page has restricted gatherings to no more than 50 people, mandated that bars close at 10 p.m., and rolled back business occupancy to 25% — all which went into effect on July 31. However until now, no other regional leaders on the Missouri side have not followed Page’s lead. Krewson and Page mandated wearing face masks indoors on July 3, but surrounding Missouri counties have not done that. 

St. Louis Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia (D-Ward 6) tuned into the board meeting on August 6 and was disappointed that the Joint Board did not recommend tighter restrictions. 

“The numbers keep telling us that what we are doing is not working,” Ingrassia said. “We need to put tougher restrictions in place, so we can get back to a place where the numbers aren’t increasing at the pace that they are.” 

Ingrassia said she and a number of other aldermen are getting calls from small businesses, saying that the lack of guidance makes for a lot of uncertainty. 

In Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker released a mitigation plan on July 15 that includes closing indoor service at restaurants and bars in areas with testing positivity rates above 8%. On August 4, Garza reported that the region’s positivity rate is 11.1%. The City of St. Louis was at 9.3% as of July 19.

Currently, St. Louis businesses have no marker or threshold that they can watch to know what’s coming, Ingrassia said.

“I like what Illinois is doing because there is a plan and process in place, so you know what to expect,” Ingrassia said. “Right now, there’s the uncertainty of when to expect further restrictions.”

Having clear thresholds would help small businesses know how much perishable food they should purchase, for example. A number of aldermen would like to see a more comprehensive mitigation plan, she said. 

The Board of Aldermen’s Coronavirus Special Committee could meet to issue a resolution to urge the health department to develop such a plan. Ingrassia said she already has put in several requests to Board President Lewis Reed, who chairs the committee, to call a meeting so they could address how the CARES Act funding is being spent, as the ordinance mandates. She said she has not yet received a response.

In regards to evictions, Krewson told the board that they received 4,000 applications for the $5.4 million in CARES Act funding for rental and mortgage assistance. Of those, 1,500 applications were from St. Louis County residents.

“We’re working with about a dozen entities, including Catholic Charities, Gateway 180, International institute, in order for them to process the 3,000 applications quickly,” Krewson said. “Yesterday every city resident has gotten an email and the next thing you’ll hear is what agency you’ve been assigned to.”

Krewson said they will work closely with Judge Burlison to put these funds in the hands of people who are facing evictions.

“We are working a very coordinated effort through this mortgage assistance,” she said. “The average amount of the ask is $1,500. That will likely go up. We need to find additional funds to go into that.”

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