OPINION

Missouri legislators shouldn't meddle with local health decisions

The Examiner

Missouri legislators are considering a poorly conceived idea to limit local control and compromise public health.

It’s a political response to issues that should be addressed through the lens of science and common sense.

Missouri state government’s response to the pandemic has been tepid and ineffective. In particular, this state is among a small number that never issued so much as a simple mask mandate or limits on public gatherings. Those decisions require a degree of courage, and Gov. Mike Parson left that to local authorities. 

Even cities’ and counties’ relatively modest steps have been too much for some legislators. They have advanced a bill to gut the authority of local health departments. Those departments would only be allowed to close businesses for up to 15 days, then need approval by local elected leaders for an extension, then approval by the General Assembly itself for an extension beyond that. Had that rule been in effect a year ago, local officials would have been left with wholly inadequate options.

This is a response to legislators’ beefs about restrictions on bars and restaurants in the St. Louis area. Politicians can’t help doing what they do, but this is one issue on which they need to stand down. The Legislature has done precious little to make things better in the pandemic, and this would actively make things worse.

Our leaders in Jefferson City love to talk about local control as their own excuse for inaction. This legislation is yet another example of the concept that’s much closer to how Jefferson City really functions: We’re not going to act on a clear and compelling problem at hand, and we’re not going to let you act either. That’s undemocratic, and it’s just bad government. The half million American dead in this pandemic – more than 8,000 of them in Missouri – are testament to the results of bad government decisions.

At some point, whenever the country gets clear of this pandemic, we need a discussion of lessons learned. That conversation could well start with the value of a robust public health system able to respond immediately and effectively to crisis – a lesson we thought we’d learned amid the heightened fears of bioterrorism and other threats after 9/11. 

Legislators might not want to hear this, but a commitment to public health means planning, resources and staying the course. It means committing to readiness for things not on the immediate horizon. It means building the capacity for accurate, transparent, real-time tracking of a crisis with ready access to the data – another singular failure by Missouri government during this pandemic. And it often means, yes, deferring to experts.

That job has local, state and national components. The better course for legislators would be to look at constructive steps that can be taken rather than destructive steps driven by spite.