(The Center Square) – A circuit court judge on Wednesday admonished lawyers on both sides of a lawsuit over St. Louis County’s mask mandate for failing to settle the case due to politics.
About two hours earlier, the county executive cited politics in defending a $2 million expenditure for the public health department’s COVID-19 communications campaign. The day ended with St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones requiring about 6,000 city employees to get vaccinated or be tested weekly.
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, a Republican running for the seat of retiring U.S. Senator Roy Blunt, filed a lawsuit against St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, a Democrat, after he announced a mask mandate in July. Schmitt contends Page’s order violates a new state law requiring legislative branches of municipalities to pass public health orders. Page contends the mask mandate isn’t covered by the new law.
“We’ve got political parties that are doing certain things based upon political decisions,” Circuit Court Judge Ellen Ribaudo said during a 13-minute virtual hearing. “But in the middle of that are all the citizens of this county and state, and people are getting sick. They’re being hospitalized at record numbers. They’re dying.”
Judge Ribaudo on Tuesday gave both sides one day to negotiate a resolution. She extended for 48 hours a temporary restraining order stopping the mask mandate. She started the hearing with an immediate request on the status of the negotiations.
“I wouldn’t want to mislead the court and saying that we’re close,” Missouri Solicitor General John Sauer said. “I think we’re actually pretty far apart.”
When Neal Perryman, the lawyer representing St. Louis County, concurred, Ribaudo proceeded with a lengthy response on serving citizens.
“For both sides to come together to show that they could work together, to come up with a solution that will at least try to educate people about the benefits of wearing masks, coming from two of the largest departments in the state, to me, seems like that might actually be beneficial,” Ribaudo said. “Because at this point, we’ve got people who don’t believe that this is even real. And they don’t think they need to be concerned with other people’s health, or that wearing a mask somehow impinges upon their personal freedom because we keep letting the politics dictate the decision making.
“And what a statement it would make to the people of Missouri if you all could come up with a way to try to protect them? Wouldn’t that be a political benefit to everybody involved as well as one to their public health?”
Perryman responded, “Your Honor, I agree with everything you said. But everything you said is the reason why we can’t.”
Ribaudo pushed both lawyers to continue negotiating and ordered another hearing for 11 a.m. Thursday. She said the morning hearing was necessary to provide enough time to write a decision to be delivered later in the day if a settlement wasn’t reached.
When she issued the temporary restraining order on Aug. 3, Ribaudo stated the lawsuit and ruling would deal only on the law. On Wednesday, she mentioned her personal feelings on preventing infections.
“Although it’s probably not relevant, I will tell you all I am fully vaccinated,” Ribaudo said. “When I was first given the opportunity to get fully vaccinated, I chose to get vaccinated. If given an opportunity tomorrow to get a booster shot, I would be in line because I think it’s important for the people of our state to know what our leaders are doing and that they are in fact getting vaccinated and doing the right things to protect themselves and others from this virus.”
Less than two hours before the hearing, Page and Spring Schmidt, the deputy director of the St. Louis County health department, briefed the media on the latest COVID-19 cases and vaccination rates. There are 283 new cases per day during the last week in the county and 20% are under age 18. Schmidt highlighted improvements in vaccination rates, but said the low percentage of vaccinations in the 12-to-15 age group is concerning with schools opening next week.
During the last few days, Page was accused on social media of spending taxpayer dollars to enhance his image through pandemic communications.
“Take a close look at what your tax dollars ($2 million) are paying for to bolster the image of Sam Page,” wrote Republican County Councilman Tim Fitch. “It’s a taxpayer-funded political campaign by Fenton Communications of New York.”
Page said criticism is common from companies not chosen to receive government contracts in competitive bidding processes and from political opponents.
“We need to be doing everything we can to get the word out on how to protect our community,” Page said. “The education and communications campaign is important. Folks will look at that number and they’ll try and politicize it – just like masks were politicized and vaccinations are politicized. That’s where we are as a country and it’s unfortunate. We’re going to find a way through it. We’re going to protect our community from COVID as best as we can.”
Employees of the city of St. Louis have until Oct. 15 to be fully vaccinated. There will be no exemption from weekly testing unless the employee is fully vaccinated.
Originally Appeared Here