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Mask order fights brew in Kansas City, St. Louis area

July 28, 2021 GMT

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — St. Louis County’s top elected official insisted Wednesday that a mask mandate remained in place even though the county commission voted to overturn it. Across the state, meanwhile, Kansas City issued its own order in an effort to stem a rise in COVID-19 cases that is straining hospitals, leading to an immediate threat of a lawsuit.

“This virus, these cases and this curve is shooting straight up and if we don’t make some decisions fast we are going to be in a bad spot,” St. Louis County Executive Sam Page said during a media briefing.

Page spoke after the St. Louis County Council voted 5-2 on Tuesday to end the county’s mask mandate, saying Page did not consult with them before issuing it. Orders took effect Monday there and in the city of St. Louis, requiring everyone age 5 or older to wear masks inside public spaces and on public transportation even if they are vaccinated.

Health officials in the county said in a news release that they had documented more than 600 breakthrough cases in which vaccinated people tested positive for COVID-19, and they stressed that the total is likely higher.

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In addition to the mandate, St. Louis’ mayor, Tishaura O. Jones, said her administration was evaluating whether to require city workers to get vaccinated.

The mandates in the St. Louis area prompted Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt to immediately file a lawsuit in an effort to stop them. Page said that until the lawsuit was resolved, “masks will be required in all indoor public spaces.”

Meanwhile, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas said Wednesday that he will reinstate an indoor mask mandate similar to the one in the St. Louis area. It will take effect Monday and last through at least Aug. 28. Lucas said that because of the litigation in the St. Louis area over masking, he also would introduce a City Council resolution.

He also noted that the CDC now recommends that even vaccinated people should wear masks indoors in places where the coronavirus is surging. Under the guidance, those recommendations would apply to all but three of the state’s counties.

Schmitt, who is seeking the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, vowed in a tweet to sue, saying he thinks the mandate is “about politics & control, not science.”

Lucas fired back, tweeting, “What are you suing about? Do you want us to just schedule a debate on Fox News so you can get the press? I’m down!”

In nearby North Kansas City, Mayor Bryant DeLong tweeted Wednesday that he would issue a new mask order, saying that “COVID-19 is yet again posing a significant health risk to our region and community”

The push to require masks comes as Missouri deals with a surge in COVID-19 cases that began in rural areas, where vaccination rates are low, and spread to cities.

Questions over the legality of local mask requirements stem from a law Republican Gov. Mike Parson signed last month that limits the duration of local public health restrictions and bars governments from requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination to use public facilities and transportation. Although the law doesn’t specifically mention masks, it allows the governing body of any city or county to end a public health order issued for the purpose of preventing the spread of a contagious disease by a majority vote.

Page, a Democrat, said St. Louis hospitals were accepting an overflow of COVID-19 patients from hospitals elsewhere in the state and were at risk of being overrun. He blamed the pushback to requiring masks on politics.

“This is a national problem that went all the way up to the top with the last president,” he said. “And we do have some folks in our country who work very hard to undermine public health efforts with a lot of very inflammatory rhetoric.”

St. Louis County Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, who voted to uphold the mask mandate, said in a statement that she did not believe the council’s vote actually rescinded the public health order, but that it would “confuse” people and businesses. To bring clarity, she said she would introduce a mask order.

“I trust that with the politics aside, we will be able to work together to protect your health,” she said.

With cases rising among children and outbreaks at camps and day care facilities, Springfield area health officials announced plans Tuesday to focus stretched contract tracing on people younger than 12 years old, who aren’t eligible to get vaccinated.

In the northern part of the state, health officials also complained that contract tracers are inundated. St. Joseph Mayor Bill McMurray strongly encouraged people to follow the CDC guidelines to wear masks inside public spaces and to get vaccinated. A paltry 22.4% of residents in the county that includes St. Joseph are vaccinated.

“We’re abysmally low,” he lamented, adding that he didn’t have the City Council support to issue another mask order. “I have to underscore, I’m the mayor, I’m not the monarch. I can’t just decree.”

In southeastern Missouri, a standing-room only crowd turned out Tuesday for the Cape Girardeau County public health meeting, including many who carried protest signs. Public Health Center Board of Trustees chairman John Freeze said there wouldn’t be door-to-door campaign to promote vaccines — a method that President Joe Biden has promoted — and that there were “no plans whatsoever” to issue a mask order, the Southeast Missourian reported.

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Associated Press writer Summer Ballentine contributed to this report from Columbia.