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St. Louis County to resume indoor dining as COVID cases decline. But virus still overwhelming hospitals

St. Louis County to resume indoor dining as COVID cases decline. But virus still overwhelming hospitals

County Executive Sam Page

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page spoke via Facebook on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020 about continuing efforts to stem the spread of COVID-19. (screengrab)

ST. LOUIS — St. Louis County Executive Sam Page on Wednesday announced the return of limited indoor dining, following a gradual decline in new COVID-19 cases from record levels in November.

The decision reverses an order suspending indoor dining enacted in mid-November, when COVID-19 cases hit records. And it brings the county in line with other regional governments that, without statewide mandates from Gov. Mike Parson, have allowed indoor dining with a patchwork of restrictions.

Restaurants can resume offering indoor dining on Monday but with new health orders limiting occupancy to 25% capacity, requiring bars and restaurants to close by 10 p.m., and requiring them to report customers’ names and a telephone number or email address to health workers tracing coronavirus outbreaks.

While Missouri and Illinois reported upticks in new COVID-19 cases from a day earlier, the moving seven-day averages of new coronavirus cases in both states have declined since peaking in November.

But on average, more people are still infected by the coronavirus each day, hospitalized with COVID-19, or killed by the disease than any time before November, according to state records.

New cases continue at a dangerous level that has hospitals at 84% capacity and intensive care units at 90% capacity, said Dr. Alex Garza, head of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force. Fewer people were getting tested around the holidays, he said, which may have contributed to the decline in recorded COVID-19 cases.

“As we enter this new year our ICUs are still operating at near-full capacity and there is little room left if we were to have a surge in patients,” Garza said.

The task force reported 98 new COVID-19 patients admitted into area hospitals, down from 113 a day earlier. The seven-day moving average of daily hospitalizations also decreased to 102, down from 107 a day earlier.

On average over the last seven days, 832 people were being treated for COVID-19 at area hospitals, and an average 17 patients died of the disease each day. The task force reported 25 new deaths Wednesday.

The numbers don’t reflect the personal toll on patients, their families and health care workers, said Natalie Crawford, an intensive care nurse at SSM Health St. Joseph hospital.

“It’s hard to see death after death after death, and to think that I am the last person that talks to this person and looks into their eyes and hears their voice: those families aren’t getting those moments,” she said during a task force briefing.

Statewide, Missouri recorded 2,761 new COVID-19 cases, up from 2,479 a day earlier. The state’s moving seven-day average of daily infections by Wednesday was 2,182, down from 2,236 a day earlier and a record 4,723 on Nov. 20.

The state also reported 58 deaths, bringing the total number of people killed by COVID-19 in Missouri to 5,491.

Illinois on Wednesday also reported its third daily increase in the number of new coronavirus cases. The state reported 7,314 new COVID-19 cases, up from 5,644 a day earlier. The state’s moving seven-day average of daily infections on Wednesday was 5,330, up from 5,242 a day earlier, but down from a record 12,721 on Nov. 12.

Illinois also reported 178 deaths, raising the state’s death toll due to COVID-19 to 16,179.

St. Louis County on Wednesday reported 250 new COVID-19 cases, continuing a gradual decline since a record 1,150 cases were reported on Nov. 12. That brought the moving seven-day average of new cases down from nearly 900 on Nov. 12 to about 400 on Wednesday, according to county health records.

Page said last week that he would ease restrictions on indoor dining if COVID-19 cases remained stable. He didn’t rule out future restrictions Wednesday, saying his administration would continue to watch coronavirus case numbers and consult public health officials.

“It’s important to emphasize that we’re able to make this policy change because the numbers are going in the right direction,” Page said. “But it’s also important for everyone to realize that indoor dining, even with these protocols, continues to pose a substantial risk to patrons and employees alike. We worked carefully to mitigate those risks as much as possible.”

‘First step’

Dining restrictions started months ago across the region, and dozens of restaurants here have since closed. St. Charles County and St. Louis city restaurants and bars have a curfew; in the city, the restaurants and bars also must operate at half capacity.

St. Louis County restaurants and bars have been limited to outdoor dining and carryout since the county entered a “safer at home” order on Nov. 17 to limit the spread of the coronavirus. But some restaurants challenged the restrictions in an effort to curtail curfews and bolster sales during the pandemic, arguing they wouldn’t be able to remain in business much longer if limited to curbside pickup or outdoor dining.

The Missouri Restaurant Association, which represents 1,000 establishments statewide, joined nearly 40 St. Louis-area restaurants last month in suing the county over the indoor dining suspension.

Bob Bonney, the association’s CEO, declined to comment on the suit Wednesday but said he welcomed the return of limited indoor dining.

“To have dining rooms open in any capacity after they’ve been closed since mid-November is welcome news,” he said.

The reopening plan, in combination with delivery and curbside service, gives restaurants more ability to stay afloat, Bonney said. But he called for the capacity limits to be relaxed soon.

“It continues to be an extremely difficult time for restaurants,” Bonney said. “But this is an essential first step. We certainly look forward to being able to relax the restrictions further.”

Page on Wednesday said the majority of restaurants had complied with the health order suspending indoor dining.

He noted the county distributed $24 million in federal COVID-19 relief aid to county restaurants and bars, but called for more federal aid.

“The pandemic has been harder on the restaurant industry than on most, and it’s up to all of us who value a dynamic restaurant scene in St. Louis County to support those local businesses as they weather the COVID storms,” Page said Wednesday.

The plan announced Wednesday, Page said, includes several major protocols that are designed to prevent transmission of the coronavirus:

• Restaurants and bars will be required to close by 10 p.m.

• Restaurants will be limited to either 25% of their capacity allowed by fire safety code, or to the maximum number of customers they can have seated at tables 6 feet apart from one another. Restaurants will be limited to whichever number is lower, Page said.

• Banquet facilities providing indoor dining will be limited to 25% of their occupancy, or a maximum of 50 people.

• All customers will be required to wear masks while moving through the restaurant and interacting with servers or other staff

• Some bars will need to install physical barriers made of materials like plastic or plexiglass, Page said.

• Restaurants will record contact information — a first name and email address or telephone number — for at least one member of any dining party. The information would only be accessed by public health officials when they are tracing COVID-19 outbreaks, but restaurants must comply with the requests.

Updated at 4:47 p.m.(tncms-asset)ed2784b8-3a72-11eb-b9f1-00163ec2aa77[0](/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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