JEFFERSON CITY — A Missouri judge has stripped local health departments of their ability to issue orders designed to keep people safe during a pandemic.
In a case involving a St. Louis County restaurant owner, Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green said all health orders related to the spread of COVID-19 in the state should be lifted because they violate the state constitution’s separation of powers clause affecting the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.
The lawsuit, filed in 2020 amid controversial shutdowns in St. Louis, challenged whether regulations issued by state health officials unconstitutionally authorized local medical directors to issue rules, such as quarantines and business closures to address concerns about the spread of the deadly disease.
In St. Louis County, a mask order requires face coverings in public places indoors and on public transportation for vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals 5 and older. It cites scientific consensus from federal, state and local public health officials that masks are necessary to limit the spread of COVID-19 until more people are vaccinated.
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Green said such orders were illegal.
“This case is about whether Missouri’s Department of Health and Senior Services regulations can abolish representative government in the creation of public health laws, and whether it can authorize closure of a school or assembly based on the unfettered opinion of an unelected official. This court finds it cannot,” Green wrote.
Green ordered that the rules be stricken from state regulations but also that all existing health orders issued by local health authorities are “null and void.”
A spokesman for Attorney General Eric Schmitt, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate who has gone to court to fight health orders, signaled the case would not be appealed.
“We’re aware of the court’s ruling and are prepared to enforce compliance with the court’s order across the state,” said Chris Nuelle.
Among those involved in the lawsuit was Ben Brown, owner of Satchmo’s Bar and Grill, who fought with St. Louis County officials over his attempts to stay open during a pandemic that has killed more than 15,000 Missourians.
Brown, who is now running for a seat in the state Senate, said the orders were an example of “tyranny.”
“It is time for our businesses, schools and residents to embrace the freedom that this decision provides. It is time to make masks optional, end needless quarantines of Missouri’s children and go back to living productive lives while allowing individuals the freedom to choose how and when they interact with others based on each person’s or family’s personal decisions,” Brown said Tuesday.
The ruling came as St. Louis County Executive Sam Page told members of the County Council that he believes a rise in COVID-19 cases, combined with the holidays and colder weather, means the county mask ordinance should stay in place until after Jan. 1.
“Loosening mask requirements right now would be premature,” Page said. “With winter on its way, people are spending more time inside, where respiratory viruses circulate more easily.”
During the meeting, Page said he had not yet spoken with county attorneys to determine a response to the decision.
“As you know, these rulings come and go as they make their way through the judicial process,” Page said.
The lawsuit is among a handful of attempts by Missourians to stop local governments from enacting health measures in response to the pandemic.
Schmitt has argued in other cases that mask mandates and other orders impose burdens on schools and churches and violates a state law giving local politicians authority over health orders.
In his order, Green said health departments must adhere to rules outlined in state law.
“Can it be said that COVID-19 knows to stop at specific county lines and does not travel over?” Green wrote. “It is completely irrational that, at this point in time, now that COVID-19 has spread across the globe, a first grader in Wildwood is not allowed to play sports, while a first grader in Jefferson County who lives less than a mile away is allowed to do so.”
“Missouri’s local health authorities have grown accustomed to issuing edicts and coercing compliance. It is far past time for this unconstitutional conduct to stop,” Green added.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Senior Services did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
DHSS has deemed 24 counties in Missouri as COVID-19 hot spots because of increasing numbers of people infected with the disease. The closest to St. Louis is Lincoln County to the northwest.