After a week of having St. Louis County employees suffer through reading aloud public comments in an apparent political move to support the dissenting opinion over public health during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the St. Louis County Council voted 4-3 to limit the power of the county executive and Department of Public Health to 15 days. Anything past that span would require supermajority approval by the council, the majority voted on Tuesday, October 20.
“Councilmen Fitch, Harder, Trakas, and Councilwoman Days voted to cut public comment short and then voted in favor of Bills 222 & 223,” Council Chair Lisa Clancy said in a series of tweets after the vote on Monday. “So today I voted against these bills, and will continue to put sound public health policy above politics ... for my family, neighbors, and essential workers who are all counting on us to do the right thing so that we can cut our losses and get through this.”
That win by Republicans Tim Fitch (Dist. 3), Mark Harder (Dist. 7) Ernie Trakas (Dist. 6) and Democrat Rita Heard Days (Dist. 1) will be short-lived, as County Executive Dr. Sam Page has said he will veto those measures.
After their vote Monday night, Page tweeted, “I will veto bills 222 and 223. They will not become law. My first priority is to protect the health and welfare of our residents, and these bills undermine those efforts and jeopardize the safety of all of us.” He reiterated that to council members at their Tuesday night meeting.
Dissenters to Page’s authority during the pandemic claim it’s about checks, balances and oversight, not about getting rid of mask mandates and other data-driven emergency measures that remain in place by Page and the Department of Public Health, with the support of the four-hospital systems (BJC Healthcare, Mercy, SSM Health, and St. Luke’s) that comprise the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force.
“This is a wrong time to go backward,” Page told the council Tuesday night.
There were 201 public comments read on Tuesday, and the council voted 4-3 to limit reading those comments aloud to two hours, with any unread comments also going into the public record.
Before the meeting, council member Days told The American that she and the Republicans won’t be able to override Page’s veto.
“We don’t have the votes to override a veto, because I’m pretty sure everybody’s going to stick to where they are,” Days said. “But, at the end of the day, this is the legislative branch of government. We’ve got to do what we think is best on a legislative arena, and he has to do what’s best on the executive level.”
The St. Louis County Charter gives Page his emergency authority. It specifies at 703.070 that in the event of “natural causes involving imminent peril to lives and property in St. Louis County,” the county executive may declare a state of emergency and assume “the power to enforce all rules and regulations relating to emergency management” and “exercise all powers necessary to assure the safety and protection of the civilian population.”
In a letter dated October 16 to Clancy, members of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force stated that the current authority granted to the county executive and Public Health director “is required to best serve the community and minimize the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic” and opposed Bills 220, 222, and 223.
The task force letter said the county’s “early shelter-in-place orders, mandatory mask wearing, condoning social distancing and hand washing have been appropriate, scientifically based, and effective measures in combatting this unprecedented pandemic.” However, the change in seasons pose “significant challenges” in the very near future.
“Colder weather will bring more indoor activity,” the task force stated. “This, coupled with the introduction of influenza virus into the community and more students going back to school, will amplify the need for evidenced-based, timely and effective measures to protect the public against COVID-19.”
In an October 16 letter to the St. Louis County Council, Bishop Elijah H. Hankerson, president of the St. Louis Metropolitan Clergy Coalition, described personal losses of family, friends and in the coalition due to the new coronavirus. The Clergy Coalition represents 150 congregations in the St. Louis area.
“Although we have experienced so much pain, thankfully St. Louis County has fared better than other areas of the state of Missouri in managing the pandemic. This is partly due to mask mandates and other public health orders. Although the orders may not be popular in some circles, we trust the advice of health officials that the orders save lives,” Hankerson wrote.
“As our elected officials, you are entrusted with the health and safety of the people of St. Louis County. You are entrusted with our lives. We ask that you will reflect upon this weighty responsibility and reject bills 220, 222 and 223.”
Days, along with fellow Democratic County Council members Kelli Dunaway (Dist. 2) and Rochelle Walton Gray (Dist. 4), are on the Oversight of COVID-19 Funding and Expenditures special committee.
“It would be helpful if some of us could mention some of our priorities and have some of our priorities acted upon,” Days said. “You can’t do that if it’s closed and it seems that the whole process was closed to any ideas except what’s happening with the county executive. And that just did not bode well with me.”
Page has maintained throughout the pandemic that his focus is the health of St. Louis County residents.
“Until we have a vaccine, we must stay the course. We must continue social distancing, continue wearing a mask and continue with some sorts of limits on gatherings. Masking should not be a partisan issue – the virus isn’t partisan,” Page said.
“And we have to rise above the political rhetoric. And we can’t undermine the sacrifices everyone is making, including our first responders, our hospital workers, our grocery workers and everyone working in pharmacies and restaurants.”
During his morning press briefing on Wednesday, October 21, Page said the worst may still be ahead. “We still have too many people getting sick from COVID,” Page said. “And now, cases are over 240 a day in St. Louis County, and our health care experts warn us that this will get worse before it gets better.”