Missouri urged to close all bars, require masks

Austin Huguelet Springfield News-Leader

The White House Coronavirus Task Force issued another round of recommendations for Missouri this past week in an effort to curb a stubbornly high infection rate, but its advice again went largely unheeded.

In the report dated Aug. 30 obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, the task force noted that once again the state was in the “red zone” for number of new cases per capita, the 10th-highest figure in the country.

To remedy that, the task force recommended among other things that “(b)ars must be closed” and “(m)ask mandates across the state must be in place to decrease transmission.”

That language on mask mandates differed from an Aug. 16 recommendation that read “Establish mask requirement statewide,” but it wasn’t clear how different, if at all, the recommendation was.

A White House spokesman ignored a question about the meaning of the new recommendation, instead reciting a generic answer about how task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx is in "regular contact with state and local officials to provide data and guidance."

Regardless, little appeared to change with mask mandates or bar closings. Missouri Gov. Mike Parson stayed consistent in his opposition to a statewide mask mandate, casting off the more direct Aug. 16 recommendation Tuesday as one of many “guidelines” and making clear that encouraging people to wear masks is as far as he’s willing to go.

And while he’s been more open to local officials imposing mandates, there were few if any new takers this past week, keeping the requirements largely confined to a handful of the state’s largest cities and counties.

St. Louis, Kansas City, Columbia and Springfield have also imposed some restrictions on bars, which have been focal points of viral spread in some areas.

Columbia’s top public health official is requiring bars to cut patrons off at 9 p.m. and close by 10 p.m., and on Friday, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson extended an order requiring them to operate at half-capacity and close by 11 p.m. indefinitely.

Kansas City and Springfield are also requiring bars to operate at half capacity, and all four cities require masks in public.

But none apparently felt the need to close bars entirely, as the task force recommended.

Stephanie Browning, Columbia’s public health chief, had said before the report came out that she almost closed bars but ultimately decided against it.

“What we’re seeing in our violations is they’re coming late at night,” she said Aug. 29.

“We’re trying to keep things open and trying to keep it at a manageable hour where people can go home.”

The task force also said “university towns” need “a comprehensive plan that scales immediately for testing all returning students with routine surveillance testing to immediately identify new cases and outbreaks.”

That recommendation comes as state universities are reporting hundreds of new cases among students and staff each week.

Outbreaks are testing many universities, including the University of Missouri-Columbia, which did not test all students and staff at the beginning of the year as other universities did. It had recorded 551 active cases and more than 800 total by Friday.

Missouri State University, which also did not test all returning students, had reported 524 cases as of Aug. 30 and at least 150 more as of last Thursday, according to an online dashboard.

They’re not alone. Even the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which has drawn praise for a program administering more than 10,000 tests per week, has struggled with rising case numbers that led it to announce a two-week lockdown.