CLAYTON — The St. Louis County Council on Tuesday rejected a requirement for county residents to mask in public settings to curb the spread of COVID-19 to applause from a large crowd of vocal opponents who claimed the public health requirement was tantamount to government tyranny. Several speakers even denied the coronavirus existed.
“This council has a moral responsibility to first provide proof that COVID-19 and its supposed variant actually exists,” said Louise Kingsbury, one of more than 40 people who addressed the council during a two-hour public comment period.
“How can seven people charged with truly representing this county seriously consider forcing people to mask or vaccinate against something that cannot be proven to exist.”
The heated meeting was the second time the county legislative body voted on a mask mandate in recent weeks as the St. Louis region sees another surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, largely driven by the highly infectious delta variant of the coronavirus.
After a short debate, the council, in a voice vote, rejected Councilwoman Lisa Clancy’s proposed ordinance, which would have required masks in public settings. The action mirrored a 5-2 council vote on July 27 to rescind a public health order requiring masks that had been implemented by County Executive Sam Page’s administration.
At the earlier meeting, Council members Tim Fitch, R-3rd District; Mark Harder, R-7th District; Ernie Trakas, R-6th District; Chairwoman Rita Heard Days, D-1st District, and Shalonda Webb, D-4th District, voted to rescind the public health order; on Tuesday, most of them spoke against Clancy’s proposed ordinance.
Councilwoman Kelli Dunaway, D-2nd District, appeared to be the only council member who joined with Clancy in voting for the measure.
Clancy’s request for a roll call vote so that the public would know how their representatives voted was rejected by Days, the council chair.
Clancy’s bill was meant to reinstate the mask mandate while the Page administration fights in court to reinstate its public health order.
The Page administration contends the legislative body didn’t have the authority on July 27 under state law to strike down the mandate because the order was not directed at businesses. Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, citing the council’s action, filed suit to block the order, and a judge issued an order blocking it until a hearing on Aug. 17. Schmitt, a Republican, is also suing to block a similar mask mandate in Kansas City. A mask order issued July 26 by the city of St. Louis remains in effect.
Page, in an address to the council Tuesday, said opponents were putting their individual preference over the community.
“Personal responsibility and personal liberty are not mutually exclusive ... masks and vaccines are our way forward,” Page said.
Clancy on Tuesday implored her colleagues to reconsider the mask mandate, pointing to statements by Fitch and Days that they weren’t necessarily against masks but opposed to its implementation by executive order.
And she said her office has received 800 emailed statements from people who support mask mandates as a preventive measure but were uncomfortable appearing in the council chambers with a crowd of unmasked people. She, Dunaway and Page appeared by teleconference citing similar concerns.
St. Louis public health officials said last week that a city resident who attended the July 27 meeting had tested positive for COVID-19 and recommended all attendees quarantine, but have not released more details since.
Before the vote, the St. Louis Metropolitan Medical Society reiterated support for a mask mandate, a recommendation by federal and local health officials to curb the spread of the delta variant, which is more contagious than past strains of the coronavirus.
“It is highly unfortunate, and potentially dangerous, that local public health policies enacted in recent days have come under criticism and attack. We call upon our community leaders and elected officials to yield to the expert medical opinions of our public health experts that are intended to keep us all safe.”
But council opponents said the mask mandate was an overreach and claimed it was an attempt to circumvent the court dispute. And they questioned the effectiveness of masks and said they did not have enough information.
“We have every reason to question the efficacy of the masks Bill 217 requires residents to wear,” Trakas said.
Fitch argued the bill would create grounds for criminal discipline against people who don’t wear masks.
“That’s a non-starter for me,” Fitch said.
Clancy said the county couldn’t wait for more meetings, citing the return to school in coming weeks.
“How many more people will be hospitalized because we didn’t implement masks now,” she said. “Our community deserves to know where every council member stands on this issue.”