ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. — Is there a mask mandate in St. Louis County or not?
A recent court ruling muddled the mask mandate debate.
"It just created a lot of confusion for us and other business owners," Burn Boot Camp owner Ted Theodoropoulos said.
Theodoropoulos feels like business owners and patrons are in a tug-of-war.
"People really don't know what to do," he said. "It seems like there is no common ground in the political leadership right now."
Many are trying to decipher what rules to follow.
In a Monday morning news conference, County Executive Dr. Sam Page said, "We still have a mask order in St. Louis County."
Page is sticking to this after a St. Louis County Circuit Court Judge Ellen Ribaudo ruled last month, a mask mandate is in force.
However, just last week, a Cole County Circuit Court Judge ruled all existing local health orders related to COVID-19 are illegal and null and void.
This stems from a lawsuit filed in 2020 at the height of the pandemic when multiple jurisdictions issued health mandates.
"If a judge in Cole County strikes down a state law or regulation, the argument is that it's struck down for everybody," Saint Louis University Law Professor John Ammann said.
Ammann said the latest ruling, however, did not have St. Louis County as a party, so this could be part of the county's reasoning for keeping the mandate in place.
"Since the county, the city, no local jurisdictions were parties to that case, the argument is the ruling doesn't apply to them," Ammann said.
In Monday's briefing, Page notes, "Even though St. Louis County was never a part of the lawsuit or even asked to provide position, the judge reported all of our health orders invalid. How a judge can do that, will be up for the lawyers to figure out, but we know it’s a dangerous ruling."
Page also said 'COVID deniers' are proud of making it hard to implement strong COVID policies.
Page talked about the Cole County Court Judge and the State's Attorney General Eric Schmitt adding, "An elected Republican judge, a politician that must run for reelection in a rural, Trump-loving county entered a ruling about masks in a friendly-fire lawsuit between radical anti-maskers and the attorney general."
In regards to the ruling, the Cole County Court judge said orders enacted by unelected officials, like a health director, are unconstitutional as well.
County councilman Tim Fitch said the mandate placed in July wasn't done by a county vote.
"Only the legislative body, so the county council, are the only ones that can issue these kinds of mandates. There's no mask mandate in St. Louis County. We haven’t been in a legal mask mandate since the council issued one in December 2020 and it expired in January," Fitch said.
With a new state law that kicked in this year, a mandate can only be implemented every 180 days.
"So the next time the council and I'm not talking about the public health director. Next time, the council could even take this up would be January of 2022," he said.
After Monday's briefing, Fitch called Page a liar and repeated that there is no mask mandate.
As for Page, he's asking people to not get distracted, encouraged the use of masks, and said, "St. Louis County has never been in a position to enforce masks but having a mandate in place allows businesses to post signs."
Ammann said it's important to remember business owners still have a right to implement certain orders.
"A business itself has an authority to say you need to wear a mask before you come in. The Blues are doing this with hockey games and businesses are doing it all over the area," Ammann notes.
General Manager of Parkmoor Frank Romano tells 5 On Your Side, they will continue to recommend mask-wearing.
"We don’t look at the politics, we just say we’re going to wear masks until they say it’s safe to not wear them anymore. I would feel horrible if my staff got ill. I just want the best for everybody. We want them to be safe, we recommend masks," Romano says.
HOW WE GOT HERE
- Page and the health department issued a mask mandate in St. Louis County went into effect July 26.
- Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt filed a lawsuit the same day trying to stop it.
- On July 27, St. Louis County Council voted to repeal it.
- Still, Page claimed the mandate was in effect and it went to the courts.
- On August 3, a St. Louis County circuit court judge granted a temporary restraining order, which stopped the mask mandate placed by Page and the health department.
- On August 19, the judge granted a preliminary injunction preventing the mask mandate enforcement.
On September 27, St. Louis County's acting health director Dr. Faisal Khan issued a new public health order on masks. Page said this mandate follows the guidance of the legal team and the judge's orders of creating a new mandate.
On October 14, Judge Ribaudo granted the government's motion to dissolve a preliminary injunction she earlier imposed. She made the ruling because of a new mask mandate issued by the county in September, which she says made Schmitt's initial petition "moot" because it focused on Page's July mask order.
"Hopefully the courts will sort this nonsense out," Page says.
On Tuesday, lawyers for St. Louis County and the state's attorney general will meet back in court and sort out the meaning of the recent court ruling on their case before a circuit court judge.
In a news briefing Monday afternoon, Attorney General Eric Schmitt says, "Sam Page has been wrong. We go back to court tomorrow. The new health order is an illegal order. We’re aware of the court’s ruling and we are prepared to enforce compliance with the court’s order across the state.”
For Tuesday night at the county council meeting, Page shares he will present to the county council a possible vote on another mask mandate.
As for the court ruling, Christopher Ave, Director of Communications for the St. Louis County Department of Public Health tells 5 On Your Side:
"DHSS is deciding whether to appeal the court decision. We share their concerns. Until DHSS’s concerns are resolved, it would be premature for DPH to say much more. Our advice to the public remains centered around vaccination and the practice of universal precautions such as social distancing, hand sanitization and wearing of masks in all indoor public settings."