Bill to limit COVID shutdowns stalls

By Summer Ballentine
The Associated Press

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — An attempt to put checks on local Missouri health officials' powers during emergencies such as the coronavirus pandemic failed in the Legislature on Thursday.

State senators voted 19-11 against the bill, with nine Republicans joining the 10 Democrats to defeat it.

The bill was one of several that Republicans pitched this year to push back against restaurant capacity limits and other restrictions that were placed to combat the coronavirus, particularly in the St. Louis area.

Research has found that mask mandates and limits on group activities such as indoor dining can help slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Sen. Bob Onder, a Republican from suburban St. Louis who sponsored the bill, referred to restrictions on churches, schools and businesses over the past year as “CovidTyranny” in a Thursday tweet.

Onder's bill would have required two-thirds majority approval by a city council or other local legislative body to enact any limits on schools or businesses longer than 15 days.

Critics said the measure was too restrictive and would make it difficult for local health officials to respond to future health crises.

“We don’t know what the next pandemic is going to look like,” St. Louis Democratic Sen. Steven Roberts said. “Inevitably, there will be one.”

Sen. Andrew Koenig, a Republican from Manchester, said that when making such decisions, it's important to involve local elected officials, who might give greater weight to the potential economic effects of closures and restrictions.

“There’s been tunnel vision, where the only thing they look at is COVID without looking at any other impact to anything else,” Koenig said of local health officials.

The latest version of the bill also would have prevented any restrictions on churches or religious practices during states of emergency.

Senators debated the bill for hours Wednesday and early Thursday morning but didn't reach a compromise.

The failure of Onder's bill doesn't mean the policy change is doomed this year. The GOP-led House passed a similar bill March 11, which now is pending in the Senate.

Statewide, Missouri's health department reported 2,063 confirmed COVID-19 cases between March 16 and March 22, or about 295 new cases a day on average. That's down about 14% compared to the previous week.

Ten deaths were reported in the same one-week period, bringing the total death toll in the state to 8,435.

Coronavirus deaths, cases and hospitalizations have decreased in Missouri since peaking in November and December. But cases have increased recently in some other states, including Illinois and Michigan, and public health experts warn at every opportunity that relaxing social distancing and other measures could easily lead to another surge like those some European countries are now experiencing.