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Koenig introduces legislation to restrict county powers amid COVID-19 shutdowns

Sen. Andrew Koenig pre-filed a bill meant to limit the ability of local officials to mandate and enforce county-wide shutdowns Tuesday.

“Unelected bureaucrats are unfairly targeting our businesses, families, and churches,” Keonig said. “Local control resides with you as an individual. It doesn’t stop at the county line. It doesn’t give the county the authority to do whatever they want.”

Koenig’s bill would limit county-wide shutdown orders to two initial weeks over a two-year period before requiring approval from the legislature and governor. The legislation would eliminate property tax for businesses during a shutdown and disallow restrictions for religious institutions and caps on the number of people able to gather in a home at a time. 

The bill would also remove restrictions for parents in hospitals where their children are born. 

Koenig also said he would urge the governor to expand the ongoing special session to include the legislation, saying the issue “needed to be passed as soon as possible.”

Koenig announced the bill at a press conference at Satchmo’s Bar and Grill, one of five St. Louis County businesses facing warnings from the county for disobeying local health orders. 

“Throughout the pandemic, the restaurant industry has sacrificed as much as any industry in St. Louis County. We closed our businesses, wore masks, and followed all county guidelines and tried to adapt,” owner Ben Brown said. “I’m thankful for Sen. Koenig and the other legislators here that are standing up for businesses that have been battered, bruised, and are now being used as a scapegoat.

“Thank you for giving good news to an industry that hasn’t gotten good news in a very long time,” he said. 

Missouri Restaurant Association (MRA) CEO Bob Bonney also praised the move, saying the industry deserved “due process, the opportunity for public comment, and the freedom afforded to other businesses.”

Koenig was joined by Sens. Bill Eigel and Paul Wieland, in addition to Speaker Pro Tem John Wiemann and Reps. Tony Lovasco, Derek Grier, David Gregory, John Simmons, and Jim Murphy, who said he would file a similar bill in the lower chamber. 

The announcement followed a controversial set of restrictions put in place by County Executive Sam Page last month. Among the new guidelines was an order for restaurants and bars to reduce capacity to just 25 percent. Establishments were also relegated to outdoor or curbside service only. 

The ordinances resulted in a lawsuit from a coalition of local restaurants and the MRA. The suit was dismissed by a St. Louis County judge shortly thereafter. 

Page said at a press briefing Monday that he hadn’t read the bill but didn’t expect it to go far in the legislature. 

“The vast majority of our residents understand the difficult sacrifices we are making,” Page said.

A spokesman for Page did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

GOP Rep. Nick Schroer also called for an expansion of the special session to address the power of counties over businesses last month, calling the St. Louis County orders “tyrannical” and “unconstitutional.” 

Illinois and Kentucky have similar limitations on the books — but on a statewide level, restricting bars and restaurants to outdoor or curbside service only. Illinois recorded more than 61,000 positive cases last week, while more than 18,000 Kentucky residents tested positive during that time frame.  

Missouri reported nearly 20,000 new cases over the last seven days. 

Tuesday was the first day to pre-file bills for the 2021 legislative session. The Senate is set to begin its consideration of the special session this week.