Missouri lawmakers probe local emergency powers used to crack down on businesses

Missouri lawmakers probe local emergency powers used to crack down on businesses

The city of St. Louis Health Department ordered seven bars and restaurants to shutter their doors this week for violating COVID-19 public health orders.

St. Louis Health Director Dr. Fredrick Echols notified the owners of the businesses that they had violated his health orders for mask-wearing and social distancing. All seven were closed immediately, four for 30 days and three — repeated violators — for a year.

The city’s actions are exactly why Republicans in the Missouri Legislature have filed a bevy of 2021 bills that would preempt local health departments’ regulatory authority in a public health emergency.

The Senate Health & Pensions Committee is reviewing at least six proposed bills that would make it more difficult for city and state officials to close businesses or religious services during a public health emergency.

“Shutting down our economy won’t eradicate the virus,” said Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, during a panel meeting Wednesday where several of the six measures were introduced.

Koenig has filed Senate Bill 21, which would create a tax credit for businesses forced to close because of a state of emergency and prohibit county health boards from requiring people in quarantine isolate from members of their household.

Koenig said he filed the measure because nearly 200 restaurants in the St. Louis are have permanently closed since March and urged adoption “to end this madness and restore the freedom of our small businesses to operate.”

Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis, who chairs the panel, said “there’s this illusion on the part of politicians that we can somehow control this. Many of these were irrational and arbitrary rules. We’re going to rein in some of this tyranny.”

Onder’s SB 12 would limit health orders imposed during a state of emergency to 30 days before they must be reviewed. Other health orders would be limited to seven days unless two-thirds of a county board agrees to a longer restriction.

Under SB 12, state and local officials would be barred from imposing restrictions on churches.

Other proposed public health preemption bills include:

SB 20, sponsored by Sen. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, would require the public be given 30 days to comment on any proposed restrictions before a vote is taken by a county board.

The pause would allow officials to consider the economic effects of any shutdown, “not just health,” he said Wednesday.

SB 56, filed by Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina, would strip county health boards of the power to impose restrictions and put it the hands of a county board.

“I believe health departments need to operate in controlled settings,” she said.

SB 31, sponsored Sen. Mike Cierpiot, R-Lee’s Summit, would limit health orders during a state of emergency to 30 days before they must be reviewed with violators punished with a $25 fine.

SB 67, filed by Sen. Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville, forbids government from imposing emergency restrictions on the number of people allowed to gather on private property.

SB 68, also introduced by Brattin, extends those prohibitions to houses of worship.

Springfield-Greene County Director of Public Health Clay Goddard testified against the proposals.

“Given that their response to the pandemic is a once in a century event, I’m here to urge you to think about possible unintended consequences,” he said. “There are situations where inaction can result in death, so there are established protocols in place to allow health directors to use the powers under their authority.”

Sen. Barbara Washington, D-Kansas City, said public health efforts have “saved some people’s lives” and are necessary to curb the pandemic.

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