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St. Louis, St. Louis County restaurants can reopen near capacity under relaxed COVID-19 restrictions

St. Louis, St. Louis County restaurants can reopen near capacity under relaxed COVID-19 restrictions

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St. Louis County Executive Sam Page was joined by St. Louis Mayor Tishaura O. Jones on Monday morning to announce a new public health order in both jurisdictions that significantly eases restrictions on businesses and gatherings. Under the Reopen STL order, there is no limit on building capacity as long as a distance of 6 feet between individuals or dining groups is maintained. Face masks are still required to enter any business in the city or county, but they may be removed in outdoor settings.

ST. LOUIS — After more than a year of pandemic-related health restrictions that limited business hours and the number of customers, restaurants in St. Louis and St. Louis County are now allowed to reopen to near full capacity and without any curfews.

The change was announced Monday under a joint “ReOpen STL” plan by St. Louis Mayor Tishaura O. Jones and St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, who cited a long decline in the number of COVID-19 cases and the wide availability of vaccine in their plan to relax public health regulations. With the changes outlined Monday, the rules are uniform in both jurisdictions.

The plan ends a 50% limit on the capacity of restaurants and bars and a 25% limit on banquet halls in the county, as well as a midnight curfew on businesses in the city. But the businesses still will have to space tables at least 6 feet apart to limit the potential spread of the coronavirus.

Some restaurateurs hailed the changes. Tom Schmidt, who operates Salt + Smoke at four area locations, said expanding capacity to 100% is the “right call.”

“It’s great that we’re getting more freedom to open up and operate and get more back to normal,” he said.

But for other restaurants, the 6-foot restriction has rendered 100% capacity more theoretical than practical.

Katie’s Pizza & Pasta Osteria in Rock Hill and Town and Country will keep its dining rooms at 50% capacity, owner Katie Collier says. The physical spaces cannot add more seats and continue to allow for 6 feet of social distancing.

“I mean, we might add a couple more barstools,” Collier says.

The city and county plan also provides that events of up to 500 people no longer will require approval from local public health departments before taking place, so long as planners follow mask and social distancing requirements. Larger gatherings, including indoor or outdoor conventions, sports games and concerts, are still required to submit plans for mitigating the spread of COVID-19 to public health officials for approval.

Meanwhile, masks are no longer required for vaccinated or unvaccinated people in outdoors, socially distanced gatherings, following recent guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which last week announced fully vaccinated Americans don’t need to cover their faces unless they are in large crowd.

Masks are still required indoors for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people, and for outdoors gatherings where social distancing of at least 6 feet isn’t possible. That includes restaurants and other indoor dining venues, where patrons are required to wear masks while interacting with employees and anytime they are not seated at a table.

The ReOpen STL plan announced Monday is the latest in a long series of health measures, including curfews, mask requirements and limits on the size of public gatherings, that were implemented locally since the coronavirus was confirmed in the region in March 2020.

After Missouri Gov. Mike Parson allowed all businesses in the state to reopen in May 2020, both the city and county were among local governments that continued restricting indoor dining among other activities, often relaxing orders separately based on the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in each jurisdiction.

Last week, Kansas City removed nearly all COVID-19 restrictions, keeping in place mask requirements for indoor gatherings including indoor dining.

‘Not returning to normal’

Missouri reported on Monday that at least 2.3 million people have received a first dose of vaccine, or 37% of the population. And of those, 1.7 million have been fully vaccinated, or roughly 29% of the population.

In Illinois, at least 4.1 million people have been reported as fully vaccinated, or 32% of the population.

But while the region has made strides in lowering COVID-19 cases, hospital admissions for the virus have plateaued and health officials remain concerned about the effects of variants in the coronavirus if it is continues to mutate among unvaccinated populations. The St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force last week urged area residents to seek vaccines and continue taking precautions, warning that it was too soon to let up on preventive measures.

Asked Monday if the health orders were being relaxed too soon, Page said the changes were made under guidance from local and federal public health officials and were a “responsible and deliberative step forward.”

“We are not returning to normal. We still have face mask requirements, social distancing requirements,” Page said. “What we’re doing is expanding capacity restrictions in our businesses, and relaxing mask mandates outdoors, consistent with the CDC guidance and essentially consistent with the recommendations of the Pandemic Task Force.”

Political pushback

Before the Monday order, Page faced mounting pressure from local and state Republicans to eliminate health restrictions on businesses and restaurants.

The pushback began shortly after the county first banned indoor dining in November, prompting the Missouri Restaurant Association, which represents 1,000 establishments statewide, to join with nearly 40 St. Louis-area restaurants in suing the Page administration in an attempt to lift the restrictions. A St. Louis County court denied the restaurants’ petition for a restraining order, and a state appeals court upheld the decision.

Last week, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt threatened to sue the county over its COVID-19 public health orders. Schmitt on April 20 sent a letter to county public health director Dr. Faisal Khan asking him to back up the county’s continued restrictions with data and research.

County Counselor Beth Orwick responded to Schmitt April 27 with a four-page letter, which included an eight-page addendum, citing data and guidance from health experts. Orwick said the county was already assessing further relaxation of restrictions, and on April 28, Page, a Democrat, announced the county would be lifting more restrictions in partnership with the city of St. Louis.

Meanwhile, the Missouri Senate last week moved a step closer to approving Republican-backed legislation giving local elected officials oversight of public health orders. The proposal, which is expected to come up for a final vote within days, would require health officials to get approval from city councils or county government boards before extending emergency health restrictions beyond a 30-day period.

Opponents, including local public health departments, the state medical association and other health care groups, warned the change would politicize public health issues.

Page said Monday that despite opposition to the county health orders that led to citations for several restaurants, most businesses have complied.

“The vast majority of restaurants just want to know what’s safe, so they can be safe, so they can follow this guidance to protect their employees and their patrons,” Page said. “For those rare instances where there isn’t compliance with public health orders, I’m sure that we’ll hear about it and respond appropriately.”

Ian Froeb of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

Updated at 6:30 p.m.(tncms-asset)9cc5127e-a381-11eb-87e8-00163ec2aa77[1](/tncms-asset)

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Reporter covering breaking news and crime by night. Born in Algeria but grew up in St. Louis. Previously reported for The Associated Press in Jackson, Mississippi and at the Wichita Eagle in Wichita, Kansas.

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