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Bills curbing county executive power during health emergencies headline marathon House committee

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A set of bills intended to curb the power of county executives to make unilateral public health decisions, such as shutting down businesses, resulted in a lengthy House committee Tuesday evening. 

HB 288, HB 392, and HB 444 would all disallow health orders made by a County Health Center Board or other executive entity from being implemented unless first approved by the county commission or other governing body. The bills are sponsored by Reps. Mike Henderson, Ann Kelley, and Mike McGirl, respectively. 

“Small businesses were devastated or completely destroyed because of the restrictions,” McGirl said. “Yes, this is a health issue, but it’s also an economic issue.”

Although the bills do not mention them by name, the testimony offered in support was mostly directed at St. Louis County Executive Sam Page and St. Louis City Acting Health Director Dr. Fredrick Echols, who have both issued health orders limiting capacity and even closing St. Louis restaurants in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. None of the sponsors represent St. Louis County or the city. 

The committee also heard HB 75, sponsored by Rep. Jim Murphy of St. Louis County, which would only allow government entities to order the closure of businesses, churches, schools, or other public gatherings for public health reasons for up to 15 days. Anything above that would require votes of approval from different government entities depending on the length of closure. 

Anything above 90 day would require approval from the General Assembly if it is in session when the closure would occur.

“Killing our small businesses is not a cure for COVID,” Murphy said.

Restaurant owners from St. Louis — including from Wheelhouse and Start Bar, which the city has shut down for 365 days due to non-compliance with COVID health orders — testified in favor of the bill. 

The group of owners said they had more than 250 employees before the pandemic. They had to lay off more than 100 employees after being shut down. 

Another restaurant owner said the city had shuttered her establishment for one year and condemned her building based solely on social media posts.

“We feel a lot better just being able to express our feelings for the first time and what we’ve gone through,” Stephen Savage, part owner of several St. Louis restaurants, told The Missouri Times about being able to testify in the committee. “I do feel a lot better just even being able to get that out no matter what the outcome is.”

The committee also heard opposition to these bills, including representatives of local health departments and hospitals from different parts of the state.

“We have to base things on science and the things that are known. Sometimes things change over time, and right now we’re doing the best we possibly can. But sometimes, restricting those by creating some kind of waiting period or things like that by people that don’t understand really the science or the background will cost people their lives,” Dr. Todd Shaffer from the Truman Medical Center said. 

As of Tuesday, St. Louis County had recorded 69,602 cases of COVID-19, while the city recorded 18,063 to date. In the last seven days, St. Louis has reported 9,535 positive cases while the county has recorded 1,666.

The committee also heard a bill making it legal for customers to buy carryout mixed drinks from restaurants as long as they also ordered a meal and had a receipt

The hearing lasted just under four hours.