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In move to reopen, counties in St. Louis area take varying paths

In move to reopen, counties in St. Louis area take varying paths

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Missouri Gov. Mike Parson earlier this week released a blueprint for reopening the state amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Since then, two St. Louis-area counties have said they will follow suit, and two others have said they will stick with plans to shelter in place. The mayor of Eureka, in St. Louis County, said his city will defy the county’s order to stay closed.

And on Wednesday, the head of the Missouri Gaming Commission said the state’s 13 casinos might not open until May 15 or later, in part because of conflicting rules across jurisdictions in the state.

The piecemeal reopening is emblematic of differing opinions on how to deal with the virus across sectors including politics, science, business and health.

Franklin County, where there have been 112 cases and 13 deaths, was the first in the St. Louis area to announce a relaxation of the rules, starting last Saturday, even before Parson’s changes went into effect. Most of the county’s reported cases are in one nursing home.

“The numbers (of coronavirus cases) simply cannot justify what is impacting everybody’s lives right now,” Franklin County Presiding Commissioner Tim Brinker said.

But state rules still in place limiting the size of gatherings blunted the immediate effect.

On Tuesday, the executives for Jefferson and St. Charles counties announced they will follow Parson.

All three have infection rates less than half of those in St. Louis city and county, and officials have said that their case count is lower outside of hot spots in long-term care facilities.

Among the White House specifications that must be met for a state to reopen is a “downward trajectory” of cases. The guidelines can be modified for rural or suburban areas that have suffered more mild outbreaks, however.

A 14-day rolling average of new cases in Jefferson County, prepared by the Post-Dispatch using state data, does not show a decreasing trend. But state data often lags county data, and the number of new cases in that county is often in the single digits.

Jefferson County reports a total of 273 positive cases, including six more new cases Wednesday, and four deaths. Officials say 105 cases are linked to long-term care facilities, but that total includes some workers from outside the county who aren’t included in the 273-person total.

A county health department spokeswoman did not respond Wednesday to emailed questions about the statistics.

At a St. Charles County Council meeting Monday, County Executive Steve Ehlmann presented data showing a downward trend in new cases, using a rolling 14-day average.

The county’s peak occurred April 12, the data show. The county has traced the close contacts of those who have tested positive for the virus since the first known case appeared March 18, according to the presentation.

Ehlmann has stressed that businesses in St. Charles County were never ordered to shut down. Residents and businesses were allowed to determine what activities were essential.

St. Louis County has reported 3,060 cases and 159 deaths, and St. Louis has had 1,126 cases and 60 deaths.

St. Charles County has 596 reported cases and 34 deaths.

Another pillar for reopening, according to health officials, is the availability of widespread testing, but those numbers are hard to come by on a county level. Private labs don’t report their testing statistics to local officials, and the state doesn’t yet report coronavirus tests by county.

Dr. Alex Garza, head of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, said the state has embarked on a study of the prevalence of coronavirus infections in certain areas of the state, and there has been discussion in the St. Louis area of doing the same.

St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson on Tuesday tweeted that she does not believe that relaxing stay-at-home restrictions “ought to be a ‘one size fits all’ issue.” She said officials there were making decisions “based on the best available data & science we have,” and that the city needs to wait at least 14 days after the peak of cases.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has said the same. He’s repeatedly said that the health of state residents is his primary concern, and said models show a second wave of infections and deaths if the economy is opened too quickly. But he’s also repeatedly been questioned at his daily news conferences about rural parts of the state that have few or no cases and want to be treated differently. He said that he had made an effort in a revision of rules to allow “certain areas to do more than other areas.”

Parson on Wednesday said he would reevaluate the situation if coronavirus cases spike.

Garza was asked Wednesday whether the reopening of some counties in the region could undermine others. “Any time you do something that increases the probability of transmission you’re always worried about the number of cases that come along with it. But really the key is how do we decrease the rate of transmission,” he said.

One of the many communities chafing at restrictions that have cost millions of jobs around the country is Eureka, where Mayor Sean Flower on Tuesday night announced plans to reopen the city on Monday. “We can no longer follow the rules we are under without economic ruin,” Flower wrote in a Tuesday news release.

On Wednesday, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page said any businesses that open in the St. Louis County portion of the Eureka area should get legal advice, adding they may have a “complicated relationship with their insurance carriers” if employees or customers were exposed to COVID-19.

Parson said, “If you’re within a city, within a county, and they’ve got that order in place, you’re going to follow that county rule.”

Jeremy Kohler and Jack Suntrup of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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