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St. Francois County Health Center prepares to partially walk back mask mandate


Just a few days after the St. Francois County Health Center passed a mask mandate, it appears ready to walk back certain components, including fines and criminal penalties. 

According to the health center’s website: “Education will be the first step in enforcement. We will work to educate any violators of the ordinance before pursuing further action.” However, the order said civil and criminal penalties could be sought, and the maximum penalty imposed for violation of the mandate may result in a class A misdemeanor and up to a $1,000 fine.

But after pushback, the health center has called a special meeting of its board to consider amending the ordinance to remove language regarding criminal penalties “because the order will not be signed or supported by [the] County Commission; nor will the prosecuting attorney or law enforcement support or enforce said order.”

The original order also said the county health center and law enforcement could not be “held responsible for any lost wages, income, or other damages due to the requirements imposed” in the mandate. But the revised order to be considered Monday eliminated that language, the health center said in a social media post

Farmington attorney Tom Burcham, who represents businesses and people opposed to the order, applauded the decision to walk back some of the components. He said the health center’s attempt to impose criminal penalties and fines was “outside that scope” of its power.

“It was illegal for the health center, acting on its own, to try to include criminal penalties and fines in the mask mandate it passed on Sept. 15,” Burcham said. “And the health center knew it was illegal, or certainly should have.”

“Either the proponents of the mask mandate at the health center did not adequately consult their attorney when putting together this purported order, or they ignored his advice,” Burcham said. “This inattention and disregard of the law plainly and unequivocally demonstrate the tunnel vision with which this mandate was railroaded through.”

St. Francois County Health Center Director Amber Elliott, however, told the Daily Journal the board did not intend to charge anyone with a crime. She called the “defamation of the character of the board … very extreme.” 

The order is set to go into effect on Sept. 21 for one month. It required everyone over the age of 9 in a public place to wear a mask. Businesses were to be required to post signage about the mask ordinance and deny entry to those who refused to comply and were not exempted from the mandate. 

The ordinance passed in a 3-1 vote Tuesday. In an interview with The Missouri Times, Burcham said he wasn’t ruling out taking legal action but wants to see what the health center does on Monday. 

“Our hope is they won’t pass the mandate at all, they’ll repeal it, and go back to the status quo,” he said.

Friday’s move comes less than a month after Jefferson County’s health department pulled back a mask mandate. The sheriff said he would not enforce such an order and questions about the legality of the decision — since it occurred behind closed doors — arose. 

While some counties and cities have implemented mask mandates, Gov. Mike Parson has shied away from ordering just a statewide rule. He’s encouraged Missourians to social distance and wear masks when able but has largely left such decisions up to municipalities. 

As of Friday afternoon, more than 110,000 Missourians have tested positive for COVID-19 and 1,780 have died. St. Francois County has seen more than 1,800 cases in all with eight deaths. 

A representative for the St. Francois County Health Center could not be immediately reached late Friday afternoon. 

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