Missouri Republicans hope to limit local control over public health orders

White and pink buds on dogwood and tulip trees brighten the Missouri State Capitol grounds in Jefferson City (Getty Images).

A group of Republican lawmakers joined together on Tuesday to push back on local COVID-19 restrictions, announcing they will pursue legislation aimed at curbing the authority of city and county officials to shut down businesses.

The GOP legislators, led by state Sen. Andrew Koenig of Manchester, were inspired by the public health order issued in St. Louis County last month that temporarily closed indoor dining in bars and restaurants.

The order, along with a litany of others across the state, came as COVID-19 continued to spread unabated in Missouri.

In November, the state reported 116,576 new COVID cases — more than double the 57,073 reported in October. On Tuesday, the state topped 4,000 COVID-related deaths. Hospitals around the state are sounding the alarm that they are dangerously close to being overwhelmed.

Koenig said that there is no doubt that the virus is real and it is dangerous. But he said he doesn’t believe shutting down restaurants will have an impact. Additionally, he said St. Louis County Executive Sam Page overstepped his authority in issuing the order.

“The county executive doesn’t have the right to create law,” he said.

Under Koenig’s legislation, a local government would only be able to issue an order shutting down businesses for two weeks. At that point, both chambers of the Missouri General Assembly would have to approve, and the governor would have to sign, any extension.

The House and Senate only meet January through May, but Koenig argued that either the governor or lawmakers could call a special session should a need arise while the legislature was adjourned.

Among the other provisions in Koenig’s bill include a prohibition on imposing restrictions on religious institutions and a waiver of property taxes on a business shut down by a health order.

Rep. Jim Murphy, R-St. Louis, filed a similar bill earlier this year that would have allowed for businesses to be ordered closed for 15 days. Longer orders would have to be approved by the local governing body, the state department of health, or, if more than 90 days, the General Assembly.

“Killing small business will not kill COVID,” Murphy said Tuesday.

While lawmakers on Tuesday downplayed the risks associated with indoor dining, a study this summer by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that those who tested positive for COVID-19 were twice as likely to have dined at a restaurant in the two weeks prior. The study found dining at a restaurant was the only activity that differed significantly between those who tested positive and those who tested negative.

In a written statement, Page accused the group of legislators of playing politics.

“I will continue to support the recommendations of our public health directors and the pandemic task force,” he said. “Hospitals are overrun and our healthcare workers are begging for reasonable public health decisions. The election is over. Stop politicizing the pandemic.”

The GOP push to limit local control sets up potential conflict with Republican Gov. Mike Parson.

Parson’s strategy throughout the pandemic has largely been to rely on local governments to enact restrictions for their own communities. With that philosophy in mind, he’s strenuously resisted calls to enact statewide restrictions or mask mandates, and has also defended local officials who enact their own regulations.

In May, Parson explicitly defended Page from critics who said St. Louis County needed to lift its local restrictions, saying “I don’t want to be telling these cities and counties exactly how to run their business.”

Last month his office reiterated that the governor “has been very clear and consistent about his support for local control.”

Koenig said he’s spoke to the governor’s staff about his proposal. Parson’s spokeswoman didn’t respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.