A bill that would sharply constrain municipalities’ ability to call for business shutdowns amid the pandemic was unveiled by a group of Republican legislators Tuesday.
Under the legislation introduced by Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, at a news conference in Chesterfield, local governments in Missouri would not be able to order a shutdown of businesses for longer than two weeks within a single two-year period. A longer shutdown order would require approval by the General Assembly as well as the governor’s signature.
The direct impetus for Koenig’s bill was St. Louis County Executive Sam Page’s recent ban on indoor dining in the county. Page cited surging COVID-19 case numbers and concerns with hospital capacity in issuing the Nov. 17 public health order.
The state reported 116,576 new COVID-19 cases in November, more than twice the 57,073 reported in October. In September, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of cases in 10 states found that those who tested positive for the virus were more than twice as likely to have dined at a restaurant in the two weeks before becoming ill than those who tested negative.
For Koenig, who said he had been considering filing some form of legislation to counter what he views as government overreach in issuing COVID-related restrictions, Page’s order was a step too far.
“The county executive doesn’t have the right to create law,” Koenig said.
Koenig’s bill also stipulates that a municipality cannot issue a shutdown order without being voted upon by a legislative body first. In the case of St. Louis County, that would be the county council.
The bill would also exempt business owners from paying property taxes during a shutdown, as well as prohibit restrictions on religious gatherings and on the number of family members allowed to be in a home at the same time.
Additionally, an emergency clause in the bill would mean it would go into effect immediately if signed into law by the governor. Koenig is pre-filing the bill for consideration during the 2021 legislative session, which begins Jan. 6.
Gov. Mike Parson has routinely emphasized the importance of local control in combating the pandemic. In May, he defended St. Louis County’s COVID restrictions, saying, “I don’t want to be telling these cities and counties exactly how to run their business.”
Koenig argued that his bill is not in direct conflict with that strategy, saying the 14-day timeframe acknowledges that municipalities are faster to react to emergencies than the state is and that he expects Parson to sign it should it reach his desk.
“The issue here is I believe local control resides with you as an individual,” Koenig said. “And just because county government is closer to the people — if they’re trampling on people’s rights, if they’re violating the Constitution — that doesn’t mean it’s OK just because they’re local.”
Page, the St. Louis County executive, issued a statement Tuesday afternoon in response to the bill’s announcement.
“I will continue to support the recommendations of our public health directors and the Pandemic Task Force,” Page wrote. “Hospitals are overrun and our healthcare workers are begging for reasonable public health decisions. The election is over. Stop playing politics.”