ST. LOUIS (CN) — A St. Louis County judge on Tuesday issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting the enforcement of a controversial local mask mandate designed to curb the spread of Covid-19 amid a surge driven by the delta variant.
St. Louis County Executive Sam Page and St. Louis City Mayor Tishaura Jones, both Democrats, enacted a second mask mandate on July 26 as virus numbers continue to climb in the state, making the region one of the first in the country to bring back masks.
Republican Attorney General Eric Schmitt filed a lawsuit later that same day challenging the mandate. The suit’s claims echo those of the first complaint filed by Schmitt, who is also a U.S. Senate candidate, against St. Louis County in May.
On July 27, after a contentious four-hour meeting, the St. Louis County Council voted 5-2 to rescind the mask mandate because opponents claim Page did not provide data backing up the mandate as required by HB 271, a new law passed by Missouri’s GOP-dominated Legislature in June which limits the time frame local health orders can be in effect without approval from elected officials.
Despite the vote, Page insisted the mandate was still in place, prompting Schmitt to file a motion for a temporary restraining order with an amended lawsuit.
St. Louis County Circuit Judge Ellen Ribaudo made it clear in her three-page order Tuesday that her ruling “in no way speaks to or determines the wisdom of the St. Louis County Counsel [sic] vote to terminate the face covering order,” but rather whether HB 271 gives the County Council the power to terminate the order.
Ribaudo found the state was likely to succeed on the merits and that it met its burden of showing irreparable harm without the order.
“Today, the Missouri Attorney General’s Office delivered a huge win for the people of St. Louis County and obtained a temporary restraining order, halting the enforcement of the mask mandate,” Schmitt said in a statement. “This is an important, hard-fought victory, but our fight against unreasonable and unconstitutional government overreach continues.”
Page had the opposite reaction on Twitter.
“We are disappointed in the judge’s decision as more and more mask requirements are put in place across the country to help slow this deadly virus,” the county executive tweeted. “The CDC recommends wearing masks in public places and we ask everyone to follow that guidance as we continue our vaccine efforts.”
The TRO is effective only for St. Louis County, which is an entirely different political entity than the city of St. Louis. The mask mandate remains in effect for the city.
Ribaudo’s order was issued a few hours after both sides presented their cases to her in a remote WebEx hearing on Tuesday morning. Missouri Solicitor General John Sauer and county attorney Neal Perryman sparred over irreparable harm and HB 271’s constitutionality during the one-hour hearing.
Sauer, in arguing for the TRO, said there were three types of irreparable harm caused by the mandate. He said the state suffers whenever it is blocked from enforcing state law, that the 1.1 million citizens of St. Louis County were harmed by an unlawful mask mandate and that the testimony presented by county residents showed personal and economic harm.
“There are human costs and human harms from the social isolation and impact on children, the impact on small businesses and things of that nature,” Sauer said.
Perryman argued there is no irreparable harm to the state in keeping the mask mandate.
“We're not in a situation where someone's defending an enforcement action and raising the statute as a defense or the invalidity of the order as a defense,” Perryman said during the hearing. “We're here with the attorney general coming in and mentioning that we have to stop this public health order in the midst of a rising problem and infection rate with the delta variant, which hopefully won't last very long.”