CLAYTON — While the delta variant of the coronavirus continued to surge across the state on Friday, the legal battle over St. Louis County’s mask mandate was delayed, shifting from state to federal court.
Lawyers from Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office had planned to ask a circuit judge Friday to quash the order in St. Louis County but hit a snag after the defendants moved the case to federal court.
“This is a procedural delay tactic in an attempt to obfuscate and avoid answering on the law,” Schmitt said in a statement Friday. “The people of St. Louis deserve answers now, and we’re going to continue to fight in this case with everything we have.”
Meanwhile, case counts continued to soar: Missouri logged 4,217 new COVID-19 infections on Friday, the highest daily case count since Jan. 9 and 1,200 more than Thursday’s tally. In the past week, the state has reported, on average, 14 virus deaths each day.
Virus hospitalizations in the St. Louis area jumped, too, rising by nearly 100 patients over the past week and hitting 413 on Friday, a number not seen since early February. Statewide hospitalizations for the virus were at 1,921, the highest number since Jan. 27.
The St. Louis County mask mandate became a flashpoint of controversy almost immediately after County Executive Sam Page and St. Louis Mayor Tishaura O. Jones first announced the order last week.
Schmitt filed suit Monday. And on Tuesday, at a meeting filled with angry residents, the county council voted 5-2 to block the order and rebuke Page for failing to consult them before issuing it.
County health director Dr. Faisal Khan spoke at the council meeting and accused some in attendance of racist taunts and heckling. He sent a letter to the council on Wednesday demanding an investigation into council members’ and residents’ behavior.
That same day, Schmitt filed a restraining order against the mandate.
On Friday, a group of community organizations held a news conference outside the John C. Murphy Health Center in Berkeley to denounce the way Khan said he was treated at the meeting.
John Bowman, president of the NAACP St. Louis County chapter, called the alleged behavior “embarrassing and unacceptable.” Anthony Maldonado, chairman of The Hispanic Leaders Group of Greater St. Louis, said he was “heartbroken.”
Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, D-5th District, said she plans to introduce a new mask mandate at Tuesday’s council meeting. But the agenda, posted Friday afternoon, didn’t include such an item. It did note, however, that Clancy had asked the county counselor’s office to prepare legislation for the meeting.
“No one should be treated like Dr. Khan was treated on Tuesday night,” Clancy said Friday.
The health department said it was not involved in organizing the news conference, and when staff learned about it, they requested that it be held on a parcel of public property near the clinic, rather than on the grounds.
Khan said Friday that, regardless of the debate around mandates, the health department’s message to the public remains the same: “Please get a vaccine, and please continue to wear masks in all indoor public settings.”
Missouri ranks 38th in the nation for percentage of population fully vaccinated. Statewide, 48% of people have received at least one dose of vaccine, and 41% are fully vaccinated. Nationwide, 57% of people have received at least one dose and 49% are fully vaccinated, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC updated its guidance Tuesday to recommend that even vaccinated people return to wearing masks indoors in parts of the country with high or substantial transmission of COVID-19, defined by a case rate of at least 50 new cases per 100,000 residents over the past week.
According to CDC data, as of Friday afternoon, every county in Missouri met that criterion.
A hearing is scheduled on Schmitt’s restraining order at 10 a.m. Monday in front of Judge Stephen Clark in federal court.