We have not endorsed the Health Before Wealth call to extend the public health stay-at-home orders in St. Louis County and city. While the demands made — including on-demand COVID-19 testing, adequate protective equipment and expanded workplace precautions — are fair and just, there are political and economic realities that must be taken in account in regards to the stay-at-home orders.
Regional leaders could have done much better to prepare for the racial disparities in COVID-19 outcomes that should have been predicted from preexisting racial disparities. However, both St. Louis County Executive Dr. Sam Page and St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson acted reasonably swiftly and forcefully to put stay-at-home orders in place on March 23. Of regional public officials, only St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura O. Jones was more proactive, putting similar protections in place for her office and suspending parking enforcement a week earlier. When Page and Krewson began to lift the county’s and city’s public health orders on May 18, their protections had been in place for nearly two months. That is a long time for public officials in the United States — and this struggling region in particular— to prioritize public health over private economic interests.
We agree with Dr. Will Ross, who chairs the city’s Health and Hospital Board, that the public health data suggests that easing public health restrictions now risks worsening a second wave of the pandemic. But Dr. Ross does not hold a policy-making position. The only way to make public policy is to hold public office. Krewson is not on the ballot in 2020, but Page is in the difficult position of campaigning for the August 4 Democratic Primary while responding to a pandemic that is putting unprecedented strains on our health and wealth. Notice the utter lack of outcry from any of his challengers that he is lifting his public health order too soon. Notice that no rival candidate is going before the public to say that Page is making a mistake. While we have no reason to believe that his challengers would handle this unprecedented crisis as well as Page, their silence right now is telling voters that they would do no more to protect public health over private wealth than Page is doing. Indeed, we believe Page’s leadership has been largely commendable.
As for Krewson, if she seeks re-election next year, she knows she will have to defeat more progressive challengers. Her only hope for re-election is to bolster her support from status quo economic and political interests. It is a wonder that she resisted vested economic interests to uphold her stay-at-home order as long as she has. So, when it comes to extending the stay-at-home orders, we believe pressuring Krewson is pointless and pressuring Page is counter-productive, given that it can only bolster a candidate who will do no better than he is doing to protect public health and may do much worse.
That said, everything else the Health Before Wealth movement is demanding is crucial. Page and Krewson must extend all of the powers of their offices to bring on-demand COVID-19 testing, adequate protective equipment and expanded workplace precautions to this region. Front-line workers need paid sick leave and hazard pay. The city should close the Workhouse and reinvest the public money used to keep it open in public health. And everyone in this region must do everything in our individual and collective powers to address the inequities in healthcare access and socioeconomic conditions that contribute to the chronic health disparities that are resulting in so much preventable illness and death in the black community right now.