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Better Family Life's Rashonda Johnson in her Super Woman mask at the Urban Leagues 4th food drive in as many weeks at James Town Mall Sat. May 1, 2020. Photo by Wiley Price / St. Louis American

(St. Louis Public Radio) St. Louis and St. Louis County will require people to wear face masks when in public to protect people from the coronavirus, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and County Executive Sam Page announced Wednesday.

The order, which takes effect at 7 a.m. Friday, is aimed at preventing the virus from spreading.

All people over age 9 will need to wear a mask or face covering when inside stores or other indoor public spaces. They will also need to wear one outside when social distancing isn’t possible. People with certain health conditions such as respiratory problems will be exempt from the requirement. 

The order comes as the number of new coronavirus cases has increased more than 80 percent in St. Louis in the past week, according to data gathered by St. Louis Public Radio. Cases in Missouri have gone up 40 percent. 

Scientists say masks keep people from spreading the virus and that will be more important as restaurants and other businesses welcome customers after weeks of being closed.

“In St. Louis and St. Louis County, we are requiring all of you to do a little more,” Krewson said during a press conference via Facebook Live. “Wear a mask if you’re inside of public places or spaces. It’s a level of precaution that the scientist and the doctors really believe will help to continue to protect us.”

Research has shown that face masks, including non-medical grade ones made of cloth, can prevent people from spreading the droplets that carry the virus. Even people who don’t have symptoms of COVID-19 can spread the virus, according to recent scientific studies. Masks protect people from infecting others, which is why everyone needs to wear one, experts have said.

The city and county issued an order in March that shut down non-essential businesses and required people to stay home when possible. The region began to relax stay-at-home orders in mid-May and has gradually allowed more people inside businesses.

Public officials required retail and restaurant employees to wear masks as part of their reopening rules. Officials have encouraged others to do so in public and guidance says patrons should wear face coverings when possible in certain spaces.

But as more people begin visiting restaurants and retail stores, the region requires a more vigilant approach, Krewson said, nothing that the coronavirus is again spreading nationwide.

Outbreaks in Texas and other states have flooded intensive care units and stretched hospitals to their limits. 

“We don’t want to happen what’s happening in other parts of the country, where they have to pull back on their reopenings,” she Krewson said. “We don’t want to have to look back in a week or two weeks and say, ‘I wish we would have had people wear masks.’’

City and county leaders wrote the order after the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, which comprises the region’s four largest health systems, urged everyone to wear face coverings, Krewson said.

Universal mask-wearing is the best way to keep the economy open, but it only works if everyone wears one, Dr. Alex Garza, head of the task force, said Wednesday.

“The highest risk is if nobody wears a mask and the lowest risk is if everybody wears one,” he said. “It’s a very low-barrier tool that we can use to really impact the transmission of the virus in the community.”

City and county officials have not yet specified how they would ensure that people wear masks.

“Frankly, we don’t have a mask police,” Krewson said. “I think that peer pressure will come to bear on this.”

Korie Harris, the manager of the Ice & Fuel restaurant in Kirkwood, said she welcomes any measure that makes it easier for businesses to enforce safety rules.

“Anything we can do that can help us not have to shut down is fine by me,” she said. “Having it completely shut down would be completely devastating.”

Harris worries staff and patrons at her restaurant are at risk because others aren’t following social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines. Ice & Fuel had to shut down for two days when a customer tested positive for the coronavirus, she said.

However, she is confused about how a mask requirement would work inside a restaurant.

“Do they just have to lift it up when they take a bite of food and put back on? I don’t know,” Harris said.

Krewson explained that people would be required to wear masks inside restaurants except when sitting at their tables and eating. If they got up to go to the bathroom or order a drink from the bar, they would need to put one on again. 

She also said people will need to wear masks when exercising at gyms. 

Officials in St. Charles County will not require residents there to cover their faces. County Executive Steve Ehlmann said the county's health department has encouraged people there to use masks. But Ehlmann said in a statement that wearing a mask is a matter of personal responsibility, and not something the county needs to mandate.

“When it comes to masks, I have faith that the citizens of St. Charles County will do the right thing without government coercion,” Ehlmann said. “I will continue to do everything I can to remind our citizens that, along with the freedom to decide, they have a responsibility to protect the health of others by wearing a mask.”

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson said Tuesday that the state will not issue a mask mandate. He said if people feel comfortable wearing one, they should, but it’s important to protect personal freedoms.

Kansas City officials put a similar order in place this week, and Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly is requiring all state residents to wear a mask in public starting on Friday.

Reporters Corinne Ruff and Shahla Farzan contributed to this article.

Republished with permission of St. Louis Public Radio: https://news.stlpublicradio.org/post/st-louis-st-louis-county-require-masks-public-spaces-limit-coronavirus

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