Poll workers told to ‘act surprised’ if asked about no mask
O'FALLON, Mo. – Poll workers who signed up to work the November election in a county near St. Louis were urged in an email to "act surprised" if voters ask why they aren't wearing masks given the coronavirus threat, but the elections director said Thursday that the message was misinterpreted.
The St. Charles County Election Authority sent the email to poll workers on Wednesday. It says workers will not be required to wear a mask on Nov. 3 but must keep one near them and put it on if a voter asks.
"You may act surprised that you don't have a face mask on properly and then apologize as you put the mask on," the email states. "Wear your mask correctly until the voter leaves the polling place. Please do this every time a voter says something to you."
Kurt Bahr, the county's director of elections, said the email was simply poorly worded.
"The phrase 'act surprised' was intended to communicate, 'Don't have a debate or dialogue with the voter, don't have any type of discussion that's going to slow down the line, just put the mask on, take care of the voter and keep the mask on while they are there in the polling place,'" Bahr said.
In fact, the point of the email was to communicate an upgraded mask policy for election workers, Bahr said. After the August primary election, the county decided that rather than simply encouraging workers to wear masks, it would require them in November to have one nearby, such as on their ear, under their chin or on a lanyard, and to put it on if a voter asks.
"Unfortunately, that phrase has caused people to think that somehow we are downplaying the need for masks when in fact we are increasing the requirement for masks," Bahr said.
Missouri doesn't have a statewide mask mandate and St. Charles County doesn't require them either. But St. Louis city and county have strict mask requirements.
St. Charles County is one of the outlying areas of the St. Louis region reporting high numbers of new COVID-19 cases over the last month. The county has reported 6,864 confirmed cases since the pandemic began, eclipsing everywhere else in Missouri except for St. Louis County and Kansas City. St. Charles County has also reported 108 COVID-19 deaths, which are more than all other jurisdictions except for St. Louis County and the city of St. Louis.
Statewide, Missouri has seen a sharp rise in confirmed cases of COVID-19 since reopening for business in mid-June. The state had reported just over 16,000 confirmed cases when statewide restrictions were lifted three months ago. As of Wednesday, the confirmed case count stood at 106,587 and the state's death toll was 1,739.
Bahr said St. Charles County is providing masks to poll workers, and they'll be positioned behind Plexiglas. Voters are not required to wear masks at the polls in St. Charles County, but some jurisdictions, including St. Louis city and county, are requiring election workers and voters to wear face coverings.
Bahr expects about 80% of eligible voters to participate in the November election. Of those, roughly 225,000 people are expected to vote in St. Charles County, and he estimates that about 90% will vote in-person rather than by mail-in ballot.
The county typically uses about 700 poll workers but is seeking 1,000 this year. Bahr said the extra workers are needed to help sanitize polling places and to help with crowd control.