JEFFERSON CITY — A group of Senate Republicans have introduced a batch of proposed bills that would curb local governments’ and health departments’ ability to issue COVID-19 restrictions.
Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, — who sponsored the proposed Senate Bill 21 — said lawmakers were motivated by the public health directive issued in St. Louis County that briefly closed indoor seating in bars and restaurants.
The Committee on Health and Pensions — headed by Sen. Bob Onder — heard testimony from witnesses ranging from public health agencies and church directors to local food chain owners and commercial property landlords in St. Louis County and throughout the state.
This all comes after Gov. Mike Parson and leading lawmakers spent the past eight months citing local control as the primary reason statewide orders recommended by public health experts and the White House Task Force weren’t issued.
A constant theme throughout the testimony was the argument that St. Louis County Executive Sam Page and other local public health officials have overstepped their authority in issuing orders.
Koenig’s bill — which includes a waiver of property taxes on businesses closed by a health directive — calls for a two-week cap on local governments ordering businesses to shut down.
The language of the bills range between requiring local approval to removing the authority to issue orders entirely.
In his testimony opposing the bills, Springfield-Greene County Health Department Director Clay Goddard noted the differences between local public health agencies and how they function, encouraging lawmakers to “talk to stakeholders that work with entities to try to create a collaborative approach.”
“I had the pleasure of witnessing vaccine going into arms over the weekend,” Goddard said. “And that was specific for frontline health care workers and firefighters. That’s what healing looks like — preventing disease before it occurs.”
Goddard added that when he has to issue an order in Springfield to apply to all of Greene County, “I have to run it through three legislative filters.” This includes the Springfield City Council, Republic City Council and the county commission that covers the rest of unincorporated Greene County.
“Oftentimes, it relies on having local relationships with health care providers, with your chamber of commerce,” he said, “and you try to run that through all your stakeholders.”
Onder described health agencies’ ability to issue orders as “newfound powers of some of these political subdivisions.” He argued that it could stretch the role of infectious disease prevention by agencies and said that such expanding power could someday lead to situations like local officials shutting down utilities to contain greenhouse gases.
Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, railed at Goddard and asked for scientific studies defending public health orders, saying that talking about capacity numbers is “more of a red herring and is more designed to propose a narrative of scientific evidence that simply doesn’t exist.”
“I have never seen in my lifetime an event or environment that’s been as politicized as this scenario and environment that we see with COVID-19,” he said. “And I think that the conversation about COVID-19 has been hijacked by very powerful special interests that are trying to benefit from this situation.”
Senate Bill 56, proposed by Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina, removes local health agencies’ authority to issue orders entirely. She acknowledged that health departments’ role in providing essential services to the public will always be an integral part of the community.
“However, they neither asked for, nor have the expertise to be, rulers of our economy,” she said.
Sen. Barbara Washington of Kansas City pushed back against some of the arguments made in support of the bills. She contracted COVID-19 herself and spoke of her best friend currently on a respirator after being hospitalized with the virus.
“I don’t have a problem with people, especially small businesses, being open,” Washington said. “But I do have a problem that we’re ignoring the fact that this is something that as of today has killed 400,000 people in less than a year.”
She asked about the risk of overburdening regional hospitals that receive patients from neighboring locales without health directives.
“Can we put that blame back on the counties that don’t want to have health professionals give them advice?” Washington asked.
“Well, do we blame people that build an interstate for letting so many cars on the road that some of them might have an accident?” O’Laughlin responded.
“I’m a personal injury attorney, actually,” Washington said. “Yeah, you do.”
Washington said the sponsors of the bills are saying they want no restrictions at all.
“But then if something happens,” she said, “nobody wants to take responsibility.”