CLAYTON — The St. Louis County Council on Friday voted along party lines to adopt a nonbinding resolution supporting the extension of a countywide mask mandate currently under a court challenge, appearing to reverse course after five weeks of debate and several votes against such an order.
But it is unclear what impact, if any, the resolution will have on a St. Louis County Circuit Court order barring the county from enforcing the public health order, which was issued on July 26.
Council Republicans Tim Fitch, Mark Harder and Ernie Trakas argued the resolution has no legal bearing but abstained from the vote on Friday because they said they couldn’t support the measure even if it did enforce masks.
County Executive Sam Page, under questioning from the Republicans, said the resolution only expressed support for the order, which he said would help encourage more people to wear masks.
“What this order does is a chance for the council to align with the Public Health Department on their recommendations and support that, and go on the record in supporting the recommendations and provides some clarity for the community,” Page said.
“As far as its impact on the public health order, that’s for the court to decide,” he said.
Democratic Council Chair Rita Heard Days, who had consistently voted against earlier mask measures, said she supported the resolution on Friday because it expressed support for wearing masks but wasn’t enforceable.
She called it a “ceremonial piece of paper.”
Joining Days in voting for the resolution were Shalonda Webb and sponsors Lisa Clancy and Kelli Dunaway.
The county is expected to argue in the ongoing court case that the council’s approval meets a state requirement giving local legislative bodies power over emergency public health orders.
Still, the action on Friday allowed both sides to claim a political victory.
Republicans argued the resolution lacked any “mandate” and that businesses were free to choose whether to require masks.
“This has no weight; it has no enforceability,” Harder said.
Page’s office, meanwhile, released a joint statement from all four Democratic councilwomen that said “their votes today remove any lingering confusion about the status of the County’s health order.”
“Our message is now clear: wear your mask to fight the virus. And get vaccinated when you are eligible.”
The vote Friday represents a shift by Days and Webb, who joined the three Republicans on July 27 to rescind the public health order issued just the day before by Page and his acting health director, Dr. Faisal Khan. The two council members, who represent north St. Louis County districts, complained the Page administration had failed to consult with them before issuing the order. They also argued the administration had failed to address broader health equity issues, as well as the low vaccination rates in their districts.
After the council’s vote last month to rescind the order, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who had sued to block the order, asked for a restraining order to stop the county from enforcing the mask mandate. A St. Louis County circuit judge last week enjoined the county from enforcing the order.
Subsequent efforts by Clancy and Dunaway to adopt the mask requirement through county ordinance failed, but drew hundreds of opponents to the county chambers.
On Thursday, the council heard directly from Khan, two top county health officials and an infectious disease specialist from Barnes Jewish Hospital about the about the need for masks to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
During the hearing, Republicans grilled the health officials about the mask mandate, including pointed questions about whether county health officials would try to discipline people who don’t wear masks.
Publicly, Khan and other health officials said they would only enforce the order in “egregious cases,” that pose a major threat to public health or safety.
But the council held a closed-door hearing with County Counselor Beth Orwick over whether, and how, the county could enforce a mask order.
‘A good question’
The resolution approved on Friday “authorizes the extension” of the July 26 order for 30 days, starting Friday. And it explicitly bars criminal penalties or criminal enforcement for failing to wear a mask. It reads: “For clarity, nothing in the face covering order authorizes any criminal penalties or criminal enforcement of any kind with respect to the July 26, 2021 Face Covering Order, such penalties and enforcement instead being expressly prohibited.”
Before voting on the resolution, Days and the three Republicans argued the resolution had no real effect.
In a pointed exchange, Fitch questioned Page over what the resolution would do.
“If the resolution passes today, does it have any impact as a matter of law?” Fitch asked Page.
Page said it was “a good question.”
“That’s a good question; the courts will decide what the impact of the resolution is,” he said.
The standing court order, Page said, instructs the county not to enforce the July 26 health order. But he said the order still stands.
“They did not instruct us to take it down; they instructed us not to enforce it, and that’s what the TRO (temporary restraining order) says,” Page said.
Webb, who also voted in favor of the resolution after rejecting past proposals for mask requirements, said the debate around a “mandate” had caused unnecessary political fighting.
But ultimately she voted to adopt the resolution because her constituents asked her to, she said.
“They want me to support this resolution, and I will do what my constituents ask me to do and support this resolution,” Webb said.
Dunaway said after the meeting that disagreement about enforceability was beside the point because there likely wouldn’t be any enforcement.
“I don’t want them to go to jail,” she said. “I just want for our community to stand up and say masks are one more tool in this toolkit we have to end this pandemic.”
Updated at 6:30 p.m.