A group of business owners are considering their legal options after city and county officials failed to meet with them about their complaints about continued restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic, Tiger Tots Daycare owner Paul Prevo said.
Prevo was one of 29 business owners whose names were included in a letter lawyer Matt Woods of Eng & Woods sent to local officials Tuesday. It claimed that Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services Director Stephanie Browning’s recent reopening plan for the city and county went beyond her authority and is unconstitutional.
The group demanded that Browning rescind the order and instead comply with the state’s guidelines, which are more lenient.
The letter also asked that officials meet with the business owners by Friday, so the owners could detail the specific impacts Browning’s order has had on their businesses. Failing a meeting, Woods wrote, “We will advise our clients to pursue all other immediately available remedies.”
Woods called Boone County senior administrative assistant Owenetta Murray and County Counselor CJ Dykhouse numerous times to try to set up a meeting, but to no avail, according to emails obtained by the Missourian. Although the original letter requested a meeting with the officials themselves, Murray proposed meetings only with the city and county lawyers.
“I am disappointed that we are only allowed to meet with lawyers, and not their clients, along with our clients,” Woods wrote in an email to Murray and Dykhouse.
Murray proposed several meeting times on Monday and next Friday, then later changed the times only to Friday, a week after the deadline set in the letter.
“These are logistic games,” Woods wrote to Murray in response to that change. “It is clear to me, and has become evident by these emails back and forth, that none of you are serious about this requested meeting. I have never in my 34 years of practicing law been treated in such a fashion.”
Prevo said he, Woods and other business owners would be talking more this weekend to decide what to do next.
“Obviously, we are disappointed that the city, county and health department could not find time to speak, to hear our concerns,” Prevo said in an email. “We made every effort in good faith to accommodate their schedules. Unfortunately, they could not be bothered to return our phone calls. So now, we have to consider further legal actions.”
Meanwhile, on Friday, the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau sent local hotels a new set of health department “best practices” for how to host meetings.
The new guidance caps meetings held in hotels at 10 people instead of allowing up to 10% of the maximum occupancy for buildings of 10,000 square feet or more and 25% for smaller buildings.
The 10-person limit is based on a county-wide restriction that prohibits public or private gatherings of more than 10 people.
Ed Baker, executive vice president of Executive Hotel Management, said he felt those rules are unfair because other establishments don’t have to abide by the 10-person restriction.
Baker hosted a meeting for business owners at the Holiday Inn last Sunday to discuss their concerns. Boone County Southern District Commissioner Fred Parry, who has publicly criticized Browning’s order, spoke at that meeting and gave Woods a list of email addresses for those who attended. Parry said he has not and will not be involved in any lawsuit.
Baker said he believes the city is using the new guidelines to respond to that Sunday meeting, which would have been prohibited under the new restrictions.
Michelle Shikles, public health promotion supervisor for the city and county, said the guidance was issued because hotels had asked for clarification about how to hold meetings. She also said the percentage occupancy limits applied only to retailers, gyms, restaurants and churches.
If hotels want to host a meeting or event with more than 10 people, they can submit a plan to the health department for approval.
“We’re trying to be a little flexible there because we realize this is a really challenging time,” Shikles said. “Of course, we want to put the health and safety first, but we feel that if they submit a detailed plan and we’re able to review it, we are still able to protect the health and safety of everyone in Boone County while helping them as a business.”
Baker was still unhappy.
“What they did was make (the order) more restrictive than meeting at churches or in Walmart or retail or restaurants,” he said. “I mean, it’s just retaliatory.”
Baker said he had expected a better overall response from the city and county, including a meeting Monday.
“I had hoped to have some real dialogue with them,” he said. “But obviously, that’s not happening.”
Baker’s biggest concern, he said, was whether his business could stay afloat.
“I’m not hopeful,” he said. “My assumption is, if this holds, I’ll just have to close my doors, and we won’t be here.”