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'Our intention is to take legal action' | Missouri attorney general locks horns with St. Louis County executive over COVID restrictions

Letters exchanged between Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt and St. Louis County officials show tension rising between Schmitt and Sam Page

ST. LOUIS — Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt and St. Louis County Executive Sam Page are locking horns over COVID-19 restrictions Schmitt is calling “the most stringent in the state that have encroached on personal and economic freedoms.”

The I-Team obtained a 10-page letter Schmitt sent to Dr. Faisal Khan, the county’s director of public health, on April 20 asking him to cite medical research and data that was driving the county’s shut-down orders.

“The restrictions of the pandemic were designed and intended as temporary measures, not an endless new world of extraordinary government intrusion on the lives of individual Missourians,” he wrote.

The county’s attorney, Beth Orwick, responded seven days later with a four-page letter along with a compendium of some of the research the county has used to base its decisions.

About 24 hours after the letter was sent, Page announced he would soon be easing some restrictions. That announcement is expected Monday.

RELATED: St. Louis city and county to make joint announcement about COVID-19 restrictions

In her letter, Orwick suggested Page already knew the county was getting ready to do so.

“Given the growing number of St. Louis County residents who have received a COVID-19 vaccine, the county’s public health policies and the hard work and sacrifice of so many, the situation on the ground in St. Louis County has improved to the point that DPH has recently been considering amending its health orders…of which you apparently are aware,” she wrote, closing with an invitation to Schmitt and his staff to meet with the county’s health department staff to “discuss the remarkable progress that has been made.”

You can read St. Louis County attorney Beth Orwick's letter to Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt below:

Schmitt’s spokesman said he did not know of the impending changes, and the letter was written on behalf of hundreds of St. Louis County residents who expressed concerns about Page’s unlimited power to enact restrictions unchecked – including Bridget Schmidt and her son Luke, 18.

The Oakville High School senior had to pause to collect himself during an interview with the I-Team while talking about how he spent the first semester of his senior year in virtual classes only, has seen the school’s outdoor homecoming parade cancelled and missed out on some youth sports.

His mother said she sent letters to the school district, the county council and ultimately Attorney General Eric Schmitt hoping for someone to intervene in what she described as a dictatorship taking place in St. Louis County.

She said she was pleased Schmitt included her concerns in his letter to the county.

“Now that we have a wealth of information on the virus and crucial tools to fight the virus, including a widely available vaccine, it’s way past time to lift restrictions that have been imposed on Missourians for well over a year now,” Schmitt wrote in a statement to the I-Team. “Unfortunately, St. Louis County’s response to our letter was non-responsive, misleading, and insufficient.

“Given the unsatisfactory response and the restrictions currently in place, our intention is to take legal action."

The I-Team is awaiting a response from Page.

Schmitt is just the latest to criticize Page’s pandemic response, which the county executive has dismissed as nothing more than political attacks.

Page is a Democrat.

Schmitt is a Republican.

In her response to Schmitt, Orwick cited Republican Gov. Mike Parson’s coronavirus philosophy.

“Gov. Parson has emphasized that local governments have the primary authority and responsibility to craft the right local responses to COVID-19, including the power to enact stricter coronavirus-related regulations than those that are in place elsewhere in the state,” she wrote.

Republicans in the Missouri legislature supported a bill that passed the House of Representatives 28-2 that will require county executives, mayors and other elected leaders throughout the state to seek the approval of elected bodies 15 days after issuing emergency health orders. That bill will go to the governor’s desk should the Senate approve it.

RELATED: St. Louis restaurant owners eye loosening restrictions in Kansas City, Nashville

Schmitt says the April 9 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Tandon v. Newsom case also prompted his office to analyze pandemic policies across the state – not just St. Louis County. In that case, the Supreme Court entered an injunction against California’s restrictions on residential gatherings as they applied to in-home religious services.

The Attorney General’s Office reviewed the Safer at Home orders in Springfield, Kansas City, St. Louis City and Columbia.

“St. Louis County is by far and away the most restrictive and we felt it was necessary to take action,” according to Schmitt’s spokesman Chris Nuelle.

In the letter to Khan, Schmitt wrote, “Our review of St. Louis County’s Fifth Amended Safer at Home Order and the voluminous binding ‘guidelines’ that the St. Louis County Department of Health has imposed on St. Louis County’s near-million residents raises a series of grave concerns about the legality of these orders.”

Schmitt’s letter highlighted six topics, including religious freedom, economic impact of lockdowns on low-income workers and small businesses, educational impact of restrictions on elementary and high school students — especially those from low-income families and those with special needs — the criteria for lifting restrictions and terminating restrictions on personal freedom along with the justification for individual restrictions, including:

  • Youth sports guidelines that require only two spectators per child at youth sports events; face masks for indoor sports including water polo, chanting for cheerleaders as long as they are six feet apart, in a single line and wearing masks, and a ban on team huddles, handshakes, fist bumps and other “unnecessary physical contact.”
  • Restaurant restrictions requiring customers sit six fee from each other at a bar, limiting parties at a bar to only two customers as well as a physical barrier between the bartenders and customers, no more than 10 people seated at a table, or if a party is larger than 10, they must be seated at separate tables and remain at the table to which they were initially seated and not physically interact with the other table and customers who are unwilling to comply with record-keeping systems for contact tracing purposes must be asked to leave
  • Avoiding use of shared objects at pools including noodles, kickboards, floatation devices, or disinfecting them after each use
  • Any children’s play area must remain closed
  • Face coverings should be worn at all times during outdoor fitness classes and separating all cardio equipment by 10 to 12 feet or by a barrier
  • Use of fitting rooms should be limited or suspended, and customers shouldn’t be allowed to bring in outside containers including reusable bags or boxes
  • Requiring face masks for anyone older than 5 when they leave home including while at school, working out, playing a sport indoors, traveling in a rideshare and walking on a path where others may be walking
  • Banning parents from summer camp areas, and, if the camp provides curbside pick up and drop off, parents/guardians must remain in the car until staff opens the car door to receive the child.
  • Scheduling travel between rooms or playgrounds so groups do not pass each other or interact
  • Requiring facemasks on those 2 and older on public transportation
  • “Consider creating a separate classroom or group for the children of healthcare workers and other first responders. If your programs is unable to create a separate classroom, consider serving only the children of health care workers and first responders.”
  • “Cancel or postpone all special events such as festivals, holiday events and special performances."

One of those outdoor events that was going to be restricted per Page's guidelines was Luke Schmidt's high school graduation, which he thought his siblings were not going to be able to attend. 

On Friday, he learned the ceremony had been moved to St. Charles County, where his siblings will be allowed to attend.

You can read Attorney General Eric Schmitt's letter to St. Louis County Public Health Director Dr. Faisal Khan below.

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