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Attorney General to file second lawsuit over local mask mandates

by Ryan Pivoney | July 29, 2021 at 4:00 a.m. | Updated July 29, 2021 at 12:40 p.m.
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt speaks during a news conference on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019, in St. Louis. (Associated Press file photo)

Despite new CDC COVID-19 masking guidance and surging case numbers around the state, the Missouri attorney general continues to battle local mask mandates in Missouri.

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt tweeted Wednesday morning that he would be filing a lawsuit to halt a mask mandate in Kansas City.

"This mask mandate is about politics and control, not science," Schmitt tweeted.

Chris Nuelle, a spokesperson for the Attorney General's Office, said the lawsuit would be filed soon, potentially as soon as today, but he didn't have a specific timeframe.

The attorney general's announcement came just two days after he filed a lawsuit to stop mask mandates in St. Louis City and County - and one day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced new mask guidance for vaccinated individuals.

Schmitt announced the lawsuit before Kansas City's mandate was issued, but Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas posted on social media Tuesday evening that he was returning Kansas City to an indoor mask mandate the next morning.

The Kansas City mandate, like those in St. Louis, requires everyone 5 years of age and older to wear face masks in indoor areas, regardless of vaccination status.

The Kansas City mandate begins Monday and ends Aug. 28. Lucas said he will also introduce a resolution to the city council to support emergency actions in the coming weeks in light of the state lawsuit against St. Louis.

"We cannot ignore the rapid spread of the COVID-19 delta variant in Missouri - outpacing much of the country," Lucas said. "We will do all we can to ensure our corner of this state is safe."

New CDC guidance recommends fully vaccinated individuals wear face masks when indoors around areas with high or substantial COVID-19 spread.

All but two counties in Missouri - Pemiscot and Scotland - have a high or substantial COVID-19 transmission rate, according to the CDC COVID Data Tracker.

Gov. Mike Parson called the new CDC guidance "disappointing and concerning," stating it disrupts vaccine progress and encourages hesitancy.

"It's concerning because the nation's top public health agency appears to be cowering to the political pressures of those who only want to force mandates and shutdowns, which only further prolong the recovery," Parson said in social media posts Wednesday. "This decision only promotes fear and further division among our citizens."

Vaccination numbers in Missouri trail most of the nation.

As of July 28, 41 percent of the state, or 2,513,969 Missourians, had received a complete vaccination and 47.5 percent, or 2,918,018 people, had initiated the process with the first dose, according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services vaccine dashboard.

Meanwhile, the delta variant has caused dramatic increases in case counts in the past several weeks.

According to the state COVID-19 dashboard, Missouri has had 561,939 total confirmed cases as of July 28. There have been 11,720 confirmed cases around the state in the last week, with a daily average of 1,674.

Amid the new CDC guidance and rising case numbers, Nuelle said the Attorney General's Office planned to file a motion for either a temporary restraining order or a preliminary injunction Wednesday in an effort to terminate the mask requirements in St. Louis.

Nuelle said the action is in response to the St. Louis County Council's 5-2 decision to overturn the mandate created by County Executive Same Page and St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones and the county executive's statement soon after that the order will stay in effect until the lawsuit is resolved.

In his petition to the St. Louis County Circuit Court, Schmitt, a contender for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, said the mandates were "unlawful, unconstitutional, arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable" because they require children, who are at a lower risk of contracting or spreading the virus, to wear masks in schools and are too vague.

The lawsuit also argues Page and Jones lacked authority to issue the orders under House Bill 271, which was signed into law in June, because they didn't provide a report to the local governing bodies with information about the need for the mandate.

The same law allows city and county governing bodies to end the public health orders with a simple majority vote.

St. Louis County Councilwoman Lisa Clancy said she will introduce another mask order at the council's next meeting Tuesday.

Clancy, who voted to uphold the mask mandate, said in a statement she did not believe the council's vote actually rescinded the public health order, but that it would "confuse" people and businesses.

"I trust that with the politics aside, we will be able to work together to protect your health," she said.

Nuelle said the Attorney General's Office maintains vaccination is the best method of preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Elsewhere in the state, Springfield area health officials announced plans Tuesday to focus stretched contact tracing on people younger than 12 years old, who aren't eligible to get vaccinated.

In the northern part of the state, health officials also complained contact tracers are inundated. St. Joseph Mayor Bill McMurray strongly encouraged people to follow the CDC guidelines to wear masks inside public spaces and to get vaccinated. Just more than 22 percent of residents in the county that includes St. Joseph are vaccinated.

"We're abysmally low," he lamented, adding he didn't have the City Council support to issue another mask order. "I have to underscore, I'm the mayor, I'm not the monarch. I can't just decree."

In southeastern Missouri, a standing-room-only crowd turned out Tuesday for the Cape Girardeau County public health meeting, including many who carried protest signs. Public Health Center Board of Trustees chairman John Freeze said there wouldn't be door-to-door campaign to promote vaccines - a method President Joe Biden has promoted - and there were "no plans whatsoever" to issue a mask order, the Southeast Missourian reported.

The Associated Press contributed information to this story.

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