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Judge blocks St. Louis County from enforcing mask mandate

A state judge said the decision was made purely based on law and chided both sides for making masks a political issue instead of a public health matter.

CLAYTON, Mo. (CN) — A St. Louis County judge on Thursday issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting the Democratic county executive from implementing a controversial mask mandate designed to curb the spread of Covid-19.

In her four-page order, Judge Ellen Ribaudo emphasized that her decision was made purely on law and not politics. She delayed a decision for two days and urged both sides to find common ground, heavily suggesting that it be called a recommendation instead of a mandate.

After both sides remained pessimistic about reaching such an agreement in a brief hearing Thursday morning, Ribaudo ultimately found that the Missouri Attorney General’s Office proved irreparable harm in challenging the mandate.

“It is difficult to understand why the county defendants maintain a mandate is necessary if those tasked with enforcing it have no intention to do so, invariably making a mandate merely a recommendation,” the judge wrote. “The county defendants argue that they require the mandate for people to comply with wearing masks in public places but by their own admission it is a hollow threat which is unlikely to garner compliance if they have no intention to enforce.”

A temporary restraining order prohibiting enforcement of the mandate expired Thursday.

The judge said the injunction will give St. Louis County residents a clear message regarding face coverings and chided both sides for making it a political issue while lives are at risk.

“The court notes that after the courts [sic] August 3, 2021 ruling that victory was claimed despite the court’s clear and unambiguous statement that the only victory is when the citizens of this state and county are no longer at risk of illness and death at the hands of the Covid-19 virus,” Ribaudo wrote.

She added, “In a time where our hospitals are near or at capacity in their ICU’s from Covid-19 patients, where surgical procedures are once again being put off due to the strain on our hospitals from Covid-19 patients and people are being infected at rates significantly higher than many other areas of our country how can one claim victory.”

Despite Ribaudo’s stern words, Attorney General Eric Schmitt claimed victory Thursday.

“The people prevailed yet again against County Executive Page and his health department for attempting to impose their will illegally on the people of St. Louis County,” Schmitt said in a statement. “Today, the court issued a preliminary injunction preventing the county from enforcing their mask mandate. I will not stop in my fight against government overreach.”

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page commented on the ruling through his Twitter account, saying, “Today the court ruled that enforcement of the mask order is suspended while the court considers the full case. Public health experts tell us masks save lives. I am confident the people of @STLCounty will continue wearing masks to protect themselves & their community from Covid-19.”

At issue is a new law, known as HB 271, 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.

Page and St. Louis City Mayor Tishaura Jones, both Democrats, enacted a second mask mandate on July 26 as Covid-19 numbers continue to climb in the state, making the region one of the first in the country to bring back masks.

Schmitt, a Republican, 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 Page’s order did not comply with HB 271.

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.

Ribaudo granted a TRO two weeks ago, stating 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.

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, but in a related move Ribaudo severed the state’s claims against the city on Thursday and transferred them to the St. Louis City Court for further deliberations.

Despite a widely available vaccine, Missouri has become a hotspot for the virus’ resurgence. The delta variant combined with a largely unvaccinated population in the state’s rural conservative southwest, which contains several highly transient summer vacation destinations, has created a deadly cocktail.

Earlier Thursday, the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force announced that Covid-19 hospital admissions had doubled in the last month and that there were 19 virus-related deaths over the last two days.

Schmitt claims in his lawsuit that making children wear masks in school is unreasonable because children are at low risk of contracting Covid-19 and have low mortality rates and less severe symptoms when they do contract the virus. He also says the orders are unconstitutionally vague and hamper religious freedoms.

The attorney general further argues that the mask mandate undermines vaccination efforts.

Schmitt's first lawsuit filed in May was dismissed without prejudice after Page dropped the first county mask mandate based on declining infection numbers.

The attorney general has also filed a similar lawsuit against Kansas City in Jackson County Circuit Court challenging that city’s masking order.

Follow Joe Harris on Twitter

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