Public meeting
© Laurie Skrivan/lskrivan@post-dispatch.com
Public reaction to 5-2 council vote to repeal mask mandate.
The St. Louis County Council moved to end the county's new mask mandate Tuesday, throwing the order into legal limbo.

After hearing dozens of people rail against the mandate and County Executive Sam Page, council members voted 5-2 to end the order and rebuke Page for failing to consult them before issuing it, which they say was required under a new state law. Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-6th District, said:
"Too many American men and women have given the last full measure of devotion for us to be cavalier with the very liberty they fought and died to provide. I will not abide any measures that seek to compromise or erode our liberty and freedom."
Trakas was joined by council members Tim Fitch, R-3rd District, Mark Harder, R-7th District, Rita Heard Days, D-1st District, and Shalonda Webb, D-4th District. Councilwomen Kelli Dunaway, D-2nd District, and Lisa Clancy, D-5th District, dissented.

Page dismissed the vote as meaningless and continued to tout the mandate's benefits in remarks after the vote.
"We as elected officials cannot stand by and let the delta variant rack up more and more victims each and every day. Masks will help slow the spread of the virus while we continue to vaccinate as many people as we can."
Whether those masks will be mandatory is likely now a question for the courts. Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, a Republican, has filed suit challenging the order. In the meantime, county residents will have to choose which of their leaders they want to believe as the highly infectious delta variant continues to spread.

Months of fighting over the Page administration's power to issue orders appeared to be over in May. Virus caseloads reached comfortable lows and leaders across the country ended nearly all restrictions on public life. Republicans in Jefferson City also enacted a new law designed to rein in Page by requiring health officials to consult with legislative bodies before taking any action and giving those bodies veto power over some orders.

But the rise of the highly infectious delta variant, which has spent the last month driving up hospitalizations in southwest Missouri, prompted a return to executive action — and council resistance.

In testimony before the council Tuesday night, acting health director Faisal Khan said the variant has already begun creeping toward the St. Louis region and would eventually overwhelm its hospitals without help from masking and improvement in the area's low vaccination rates.
"If the council, in its infinite wisdom, negates this order, there will be more misery. There will be more infection. There will be more death."
He also pleaded with council members to set aside concerns about legal issues and listen to public health officials.

Most were not interested.

Trakas asked Khan repeatedly whether the mandate would regulate access to business — and thus trigger the new state law allowing the council to strike it down. Khan said he would expect businesses to enforce the order, but declined to comment further.

Days, the council chair, echoed some of the frustration voiced by members of the audience, asking Khan why the county found itself again in "a predicament."
"You asked us to stay home. You asked us to put on masks. You asked us to stay six feet apart. Then those (restrictions) were relaxed. We have done everything you have asked us to do. And we have played by the rules. We have followed your orders. And yet we are still in a predicament. So, something is not working. ... I want to know, what did we not do correctly?"
Khan responded: "We didn't talk to the virus about how it should behave."

Like Days, county resident after county resident expressed frustration during two hours of boisterous public comment.

Hans Fiene, of Ballwin, said requiring masks for everyone again would undercut messaging on the need to get vaccinated. "The best thing to do is allow people to make up their own minds," he said.

Matt Doebler, also of Ballwin, said the council needed to trust people to make their own decisions. "It's time to end rule by mandate," he said.

A small number of people took the other side, including Alonzo Adams Jr., a pastor from Ferguson. "We don't have to fight this mandate," he said. "Let them do what they can to help people."

But of more than 40 people addressed the council Tuesday night, nearly all of them opposed the mask mandate. And after the vote to rescind it, the room erupted in cheers.

Upstairs in his office afterward, Page cast the crowd as part of a vocal minority and predicted most people would continue to follow his administration's lead. He also noted that new federal guidance calls for universal masking in high-risk areas like Missouri and that Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas announced his own order Tuesday night, so St. Louis and St. Louis County are not alone.
"Some people will not follow it, but I expect we'll see compliance similar to what we saw before. Over a period of days or a few weeks, most people will ultimately start wearing masks again."
Downstairs in the council chambers, Fitch, who sponsored the resolution to terminate the order, chuckled.

"State law gives us the authority to do what we did tonight, and the mask mandate has ended," he said. He said he would be happy to consider another order if Page and Khan brought it to the council first, though. "We're all ears," he said.

The county issued its mask order at the same time as the city of St. Louis. Alderman John Collins-Muhammad, who attended the council meeting, said the Board of Aldermen "needs to do the same thing" as the council. "It violates state law and allows federal funds to be spent circumventing the legislative process," he said via Twitter.
The Board of Aldermen is currently on summer recess and not scheduled to meet again until September.