Missouri county's order reinstating mask mandate amid delta surge met with challenges

The new health order is set to go into effect on Monday.

July 24, 2021, 1:02 PM

Hours after health officials in St. Louis announced they would reinstate a mask mandate amid rising COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, the state's attorney general said he planned to challenge it.

On Friday, officials for the city and county of St. Louis said residents ages 5 and up will be required to wear masks in indoor public places and on public transportation starting Monday, regardless of vaccination status. Wearing masks outdoors in groups will be strongly encouraged under the new order, which includes exceptions while eating and drinking in restaurants and bars, and for people with disabilities.

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt said on Twitter late Friday night that he planned to file a lawsuit Monday to halt the mask mandate.

"The citizens of St. Louis and St. Louis County are not subjects -- they are free people," he said. "As their Attorney General I'll be filing suit Monday to stop this insanity."

St. Louis County Councilman Tim Fitch has also said he plans to challenge the mask mandate. Last month, Missouri enacted a new law allowing local governing bodies to halt public health orders at any time through a majority vote.

St. Louis County rescinded its health order requiring masks and social distancing in mid-May, a day after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidance allowing fully vaccinated Americans to stop wearing masks indoors in most settings. Local officials recommended wearing masks "whenever you're close to people who may not be vaccinated."

"We have arrived at a point in the pandemic where we have to lean more heavily on personal responsibility to prevent further spread of the virus," Dr. Fredrick Echols, acting director of health for the city of St. Louis, said in a statement at the time.

PHOTO:  An usher walks through the aisles and carries a sign reminding fans to wear their mask during the seventh inning of the home opener against the Milwaukee Brewers at Busch Stadium in St Louis, Mo., April 8, 2021.
An usher walks through the aisles and carries a sign reminding fans to wear their mask during the seventh inning of the home opener against the Milwaukee Brewers at Busch Stadium in St Louis, Mo., April 8, 2021.
Jeff Curry/Getty Images, FILE

In the weeks since, COVID-19 cases have surged in Missouri, as the highly transmissible delta variant has rapidly spread. The rate of new cases in St. Louis County has increased to 20.9 cases per 100,000 per day -- as high as the rate seen in early February "when we were still coming out of the enormous winter surge," according to a report published Thursday by the county's public health department. COVID-19 hospitalizations have also increased by 45% between July 6 and July 19.

"We've lost more than 500 St. Louisans to COVID-19, and if our region doesn't work together to protect one another, we could see spikes that overwhelm our hospital and public health systems," Echols said in a statement Friday announcing the renewed mask mandate. "The city and county health departments are taking this joint step to save lives, make sure hospitals can provide the care residents rely on, and protect our children so they can enjoy a full range of educational opportunities this year."

"Wear a mask, wash your hands, watch your distance when possible, and most importantly, get vaccinated," he added. "Vaccines remain one of the best methods to prevent severe complications and death from the virus."

The increase in COVID-19 cases has been driven by infection in unvaccinated residents, the county has said, including fueling multiple outbreaks in daycares and camps this summer. About 44.8% of St. Louis County residents are fully vaccinated, according to state health department data.

"Vaccinations are the best way to stop the fast-spreading delta variant of COVID-19, but so far, not enough people have been vaccinated," Dr. Faisal Khan, acting director of the St. Louis County Department of Public Health, said in a statement Friday. "We are relentlessly committed to making vaccinations more accessible and convenient. In the meantime, we need everyone, vaccinated or not, to wear masks in crowded indoor settings."

"We must protect our most vulnerable residents as well as children under 12, who are not yet eligible for vaccinations," he added.

Last weekend, Los Angeles County officials reinstated an indoor mask mandate in response to surging COVID-19 cases. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said it would not enforce the health order.

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