Ed Baker says he had between 170 and 210 employees at the Holiday Inn Executive Center at the beginning of the year.
Now, in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, the executive vice president of Executive Hotel Management says he has fewer than 10.
Baker is one of several business people demanding the city and county rescind the April 30 order by Stephanie Browning, director of the Columbia/Boone County Department of Health and Human Services, that details how Columbia and Boone County will begin to reopen but continues to restrict businesses, requiring that many remain closed.
And that group has lawyered up. Attorney Matt Woods of Eng & Woods sent a letter to city and county officials on their behalf, warning that Browning has overstepped her authority and that the orders are unconstitutional.
The business owners have another ally: Southern Boone County Commissioner Fred Parry, who spoke at their Sunday meeting at the Holiday Inn Executive Center. He said he reminded the audience not to ignore science but told them he understands it’s important to open up businesses.
Parry said the potential for legal action was discussed at the meeting but that he was “staying out of it.”
“If I were not a county commissioner, I’d probably be right in the middle of it,” Parry said.
Baker said Parry had listened to the business owners and acted as a facilitator.
Emails obtained by the Missourian show Parry also sent Woods a list of email addresses for those who attended the conference, after Woods sent an email asking who would like to be represented in his letter and who was willing to pay for legal services.
“If you are one of the individuals or businesses who has advised Fred of an ability to pay for legal services, please advise me as to the amount you are ready to pay immediately, and let me know so that I can get an idea how far we can go forward,” Woods wrote.
Boone County Presiding Commissioner Dan Atwill during a Tuesday commission meeting peppered Parry with questions about his involvement.
Was he collecting money in support of a lawsuit against the health department? Did he not vote to approve the orders issued by Browning? Was he aware that a lawsuit against the health department would also be a lawsuit against the county?
Parry denied knowledge of any potential lawsuit. He did express frustration that Browning had not sought the commissioners’ input before issuing her orders. He said he wanted Browning and Columbia City Manager John Glascock to ramp up their communication about the orders.
Woods on Tuesday sent a letter on behalf of at least 29 local businesses and individuals to Mayor Brian Treece, Glascock, Browning and Atwill, arguing that Browning lacked legal authority to issue the April 30 order and that it is damaging business in the county.
Those represented say they are happy to comply with Gov. Mike Parson’s statewide order, but they believe the Columbia and Boone County orders go too far.
“We are not advocating that our citizens be permitted to resume normal pre-COVID life at this time, and we certainly understand that those more vulnerable to COVID-19 will need the continued protection and support of local authorities and their fellow citizens,” the letter reads.
Woods asks not only that the order be rescinded but also for a meeting with the people he represents. Absent that, his letter says, “we will advise our clients to pursue all other immediately available remedies.”
Browning’s order allowed restaurants to reopen dining areas and for nonessential businesses such as retailers, salons and gyms to reopen Monday, with restrictions. Movie theaters, playgrounds and bars remain closed. The order also prohibits gatherings of more than 10 people.
That’s stricter than the state’s reopening plan, which also took effect Monday. The state order includes the same occupancy limits, but it does not limit the size of gatherings, and it allows all businesses to open with social distancing.
The state order expires May 31; the local order has no end date.
Parry worries about that, and about the fact that small businesses have remained shuttered while national chain stores cash in during the pandemic. He said he empathizes as a former small-business owner.
“When you’re asked to go without revenue for two months, but you look down the street and it looks like it’s Black Friday at Walmart or Home Depot or Bass Pro, you really start to wonder, ‘Why is it that my mom-and-pop shop that might get five customers a day can’t open?’”
Baker worries businesses will move to more lenient cities. His hotel had been planning for guests from an upcoming softball tournament that moved to Jefferson City.
“I think we’re doing major harm to our community,” Baker said. “Every time we lose a piece of business down the road to Springfield or to Joplin, our people have less money to pay for groceries.”
Woods’ letter argues that Browning’s order is null and void because it is inconsistent with the state’s, even though the state order allows local governments to impose stricter guidelines, according to an online FAQ.
Woods questioned whether Missouri Department of Health and Human Services Director Randall Williams has the standing to delegate authority to local officials in an emergency.
Browning said in an email to the Missourian that she is carefully reviewing Woods’ letter, “like I do with everything.”
Baker said he isn’t angry with city and county officials.
“I’m sure it’s an abundance of caution, but I just really want for the working class and the working poor to have a voice. They need jobs, they need schools, they need to be able to go to the park and they need to be able to play softball,” Baker said. “Why they can’t do it here but they can do it in Jefferson City or Joplin doesn’t make sense.”
Parry worries about long-term impact.
“We’re going to lose the restaurants we love the most. We’re going to lose the quaint downtown boutiques that make our downtown shopping district very unique,” he said. “We have a very special thing here in Columbia and Boone County, and I just feel like this COVID-19 crisis has really threatened a lot of it.”