Updated at 8 p.m. Wednesday with more information.
ST. CHARLES — Two restaurants filed a lawsuit this week against St. Charles, St. Charles County and others, seeking to overturn an emergency order that closes bars and restaurants at 11 p.m. to deter the spread of the coronavirus.
Tony’s on Main in St. Charles and Shamrock’s Pub and Grill in St. Peters argued in court Wednesday that officials failed to act for months to stop the virus before issuing the “bizarre and non-sensical” emergency order on Nov. 24.
“We’re doing this for the entire group of restaurants in our area, not just for us,” Shamrock’s owner Kyle Dent told the Post-Dispatch Wednesday.
The move is the most recent by area restaurants to curtail curfews and bolster business during the pandemic. Dining restrictions started months ago across the region, and dozens of restaurants here have since closed. St. Louis city bars and restaurants have a similar curfew, and must operate at half capacity. St. Louis County banned indoor service altogether in mid-November, and is now in discussions to allow it to resume, with restrictions, in January.
Restaurant owners across the region and country have said they won’t last much longer if limited to curbside pickup or outdoor dining.
In September, St. Charles restricted DJs and dancing on a four-block stretch of downtown to limit late-night crowds. The bar curfew, said St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann, is intended to keep people “from flocking to St. Charles County after they are barred from other areas.”
“We need to make certain that St. Charles County is not a magnet for those who want to stay out late and party in groups,” Ehlmann said.
But the suit, filed Tuesday, argues that other St. Charles County businesses, such as diners, restaurants without liquor licenses and the Ameristar Casino, aren’t subjected to the curfew, and that there is no scientific basis for the order.
“We’re having to kick dozens of longtime customers out,” said Dent, the Shamrock’s owner. “Meanwhile, the casino is packed. It all makes no sense.”
“We just want a level playing field,” said the restaurants’ attorney, Daniel Goldberg.
St. Charles County Circuit Judge Ted House on Wednesday rejected the restaurants’ request for a temporary restraining order, saying they did not show enough evidence of “irreparable harm.” But he added that he believes they have a compelling case to recoup damages.
House’s decision keeps with judgments in nine similar cases in the area from businesses seeking exemptions from pandemic health orders, according to attorneys for St. Charles County.
St. Charles County has reported a total of 28,036 cases of COVID-19 and 307 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. On average, the county is reporting 257 new cases each day, down from a peak of 371 on Nov. 23, but still higher than any level in the spring or summer.
Meanwhile, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson on Wednesday said she expects no changes to city restaurant restrictions “on the immediate horizon.”
“We feel like we’ve struck about the right balance here,” Krewson said.
Krewson pointed to private gatherings in residents’ homes as a large source of COVID-19 spread.
In St. Louis County, indoor dining has been restricted since the county entered a “safer at home” order on Nov. 17. But County Executive Sam Page said during a briefing Wednesday that, if COVID-19 case numbers remain stable, he will release a plan on Dec. 30 to reopen indoor service.
Page said the county’s public health department met with an informal group of restaurant advisers on Tuesday. The group has discussed curfews, occupancy limits and distancing rules, but Page said he did not want to speculate on reopening without a finalized plan.
“It’s important to note that any form of indoor dining will still carry risk, but we believe that given the compliance in the community, the cooperation of the restaurant industry, we can agree on a plan that will allow some form of indoor dining to return by early next month,” Page said.
The Municipal League of Metro St. Louis sent Page a letter on Friday requesting data on infection rates related to restaurants.
“We would like to ascertain if the data supports a continued shutdown or if these restrictions can be relaxed,” the letter says.
Pat Kelly, the executive director of the Municipal League, said Wednesday that mayors in the county want more information about coronavirus transmission in restaurant settings. Kelly acknowledged that the county has said there have been COVID-19 cases tied to restaurants, but he would like more specifics about where those have occurred, and how many.
Doug Moore, a spokesman for the county executive’s office, said Page will review the letter.
“We want restaurants to reopen just as badly as they do,” Moore said. “We need to be confident they can do so in a way that is safe to the customers and to the employees.”
The county has recorded cases of transmission in restaurants, and in several cases, groups of diners have tested positive after eating a meal together. In one sampling of 74 restaurant workers who tested positive in the county, more than half had worked while infectious.
Dr. Alex Garza, who leads the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, said Wednesday that the numbers of coronavirus patients in the St. Louis region are dangerously high, and by all measures hospitals are facing an “extremely risky situation.”
The task force reported 871 COVID-19 patients in area hospitals, 182 in intensive care units, and 114 on ventilators. The number of total COVID-19 patients locally has been above 800 since Nov. 16.
The hospitals also reported 31 patient deaths due to the virus, the highest number since the task force began tracking it in early October.
“The amount of virus spreading in our community is still putting us all at risk,” Garza said. “We are still at the height of the pandemic.”