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St. Louis, St. Louis County to reinstate mask mandate, some of first in US

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Pandemic Task Force holds final press conference

Dr. Alex Garza pauses for a moment as a screen displays the number of patients discharged from COVID-19 units in area hospitals during the final press conference of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force at The Learning Resource Center on the St. Louis University campus on Monday, June 14, 2021. St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, center, and St. Louis Mayor Tishaura O. Jones, right, listen off to the side. The task force held its first briefing on April 4, 2020. Officials in the task force stressed that the pandemic is not over, and citizens need to stay on guard to prevent future outbreaks. Photo by Colter Peterson,

ST. LOUIS — Faced with a rising tide of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations, St. Louis and St. Louis County leaders announced Friday that they will reinstate a mask requirement, for vaccinated and unvaccinated residents alike.

It is one of a few regions in the country to mandate masks again.

“We’ve lost more than 500 St. Louisans to COVID-19, and if our region doesn’t work together to protect one another, we could see spikes that overwhelm our hospital and public health systems,” St. Louis acting health director Dr. Fredrick Echols said in a statement.

Masks will be required beginning on Monday in indoor public places and on public transportation, officials said, without elaborating. Masks will be strongly encouraged outdoors, especially in group settings, but not required. The rule will apply to people age 5 and older. By a federal order that runs through mid-September, masks already are required on all public transportation.

The decision already is stirring talk of opposition, both locally and at the state level, but many health officials back the move.

Dr. Hilary Babcock, a BJC HealthCare representative in the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, said the group is supportive of a renewed mask mandate. Babcock is an infectious disease expert at BJC and the Washington University School of Medicine.

The number of COVID-19 patients in BJC hospitals has more than tripled in the past six weeks, Babcock said. Area hospitals are not yet stretched as thin as those in southwest Missouri, but staffing is tight, and there is not a lot of room to accept transfer patients. BJC has not begun to scale back elective care yet, but, Babcock said, “we’re discussing all the options.”

The task force on Friday reported 318 total hospitalized virus patients across area BJC, Mercy, SSM Health and St. Luke’s Hospital facilities — up from 93 on June 9.

“This is clearly another surge,” Babcock said.

Missouri reported 2,865 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, and the seven-day average was at the same level as late January, according to a Post-Dispatch analysis. The state also reported 15 more deaths due to the virus.

Illinois reported 1,470 new cases of COVID-19. The seven-day average rose to 1,140, the highest level since late May, and the state reported seven more deaths due to the virus.

Melaney Arnold, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health, said in an email Friday that the state is closely monitoring hospital resource availability but has not reinstituted a mask mandate.

“The key right now is vaccination,” Arnold said.

In Illinois, 61% have gotten one dose, and 48% are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The national rate is 57% with at least one dose and 49% fully vaccinated.

In Missouri, 48% of the population has gotten at least one dose, and 41% are fully vaccinated, the state reported Friday.

There has been a slight increase in the pace of vaccinations in Missouri, Babcock said, but not enough. Doses are still rolling out more slowly and in smaller numbers than are needed.

Even if every unvaccinated person in the region got immunized immediately, it would take between two and six weeks for them to get the required doses and achieve the full benefit, depending on the vaccine product.

“In the meantime, we need masking,” Babcock said. “We need something to tide us over until more people have been protected through vaccination.”

St. Louis and St. Louis County leaders announced the region’s first mask mandates more than a year ago, in July of 2020.

In December, the first doses of vaccine arrived in the region, and in the spring, vaccinations accelerated. All Missourians 16 and older became eligible for the shots in April, and throughout the spring the state’s daily case counts remained significantly lower than the winter peak. On May 13, the CDC updated its recommendations, announcing that fully vaccinated individuals no longer needed to wear a mask in many indoor settings.

The following day, St. Louis Mayor Tishaura O. Jones and St. Louis County Executive Sam Page announced similar changes to the city and county mask guidance.

But as the virus has surged in spots across the country, officials have begun reconsidering mask requirements. Los Angeles County, the nation’s largest county, reordered mask-wearing on July 17 in response to a sharp increase in cases there.

And recently, the more easily transmissible delta variant of the virus has flourished throughout southwest Missouri, overwhelming hospitals. Case counts are rising in the St. Louis area, too, and hospital officials have warned that without aggressive action, this region could follow a similar trajectory.

Jones and Page will hold a news conference on Monday morning to provide more information about the mask order.

There will be exceptions for people eating or drinking in a restaurant or bar as well as for individuals with disabilities that prevent them from putting on or removing face coverings.

Some officials and organizations are already reacting:

Schnuck Markets Inc. said in a statement that beginning Monday it will require all customers, employees and vendors to wear face coverings, regardless of vaccination status, at the chain’s 45 locations within St. Louis and St. Louis County. Masks will not be required in the 65 Schnucks stores in other jurisdictions.

The Muny, which opens its season on Monday, released a statement on Twitter that the organization is keeping in touch with health officials on the issue. “Per the City of St. Louis guidelines, effective July 26, we strongly encourage Muny guests to wear masks when at the theatre,” the statement said.

St. Louis County Councilman Tim Fitch, R-3rd District, said Friday in a post on Twitter that he planned to try to terminate the mask order at a Tuesday council meeting. He cited a piece of legislation that was signed by Gov. Mike Parson on June 15 that places some limits on the authority of health officials to issue pandemic-related orders.

Late Friday, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt weighed in on Twitter, pledging to sue to stop the mask mandate.

“The citizens of St. Louis and St. Louis County are not subjects — they are free people. As their Attorney General I’ll be filing suit Monday to stop this insanity,” he tweeted.

But federal authorities have said they expect communities to consider local orders — in a television appearance on Sunday, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said in areas with low vaccination rates or rising case rates, it is “very reasonable” for counties to enact more mitigation measures, like mask rules.

Page spokesman Doug Moore said in an email Friday that council approval is not needed for a mask mandate.


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