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Missouri closing casinos; inmates freed to cut virus risk

Gov. Mike Parson has ordered the closure of Missouri’s 13 casinos through March 30 as part of an effort to limit public gatherings in the public health battle against the coronavirus. Meanwhile, some nonviolent jail inmates are being freed to reduce the risk of transmission behind bars.

The Republican governor announced Tuesday that the casinos would close at midnight “to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

The news came the same day that neighboring Kansas announced it was closing state-owned casinos through March 30. Illinois closed casinos on Monday for at least two weeks.

Missouri Gaming Commission Chairman Mike Leara said the impact of the shutdown could mean up to $1 million a day in lost revenue for the state. He said once local governments began taking actions in recent days to limit public gatherings to no more than 50, it became apparent that the casinos couldn’t remain open.

Leara said he felt especially bad for the thousands of casino workers in Missouri.

“These people, they love their jobs, they make good money,” Leara said. “Man, that’s really tough to tell them they can’t come to work.”

The virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, for most people, but severe illness is more likely in the elderly and people with existing health problems. Worldwide, COVID-19 has killed over 7,800 people so far, while more than 80,000 have recovered.

So far, eight cases have been confirmed in Missouri, with no deaths. Cass County health officials announced late Monday that a patient is in self-isolation in Drexel, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of Kansas City. Two other new cases were announced Monday, one in St. Louis and the other in Greene County in southwest Missouri.

Across the state, other steps were being taken to protect people from the virus.

At St. Louis’ Gateway Arch, the visitor center, museum and grounds remained open, but the tram that transports visitors to the top of the Arch was shut down until further notice.

At St. Louis City Hall, visitors were being scanned for fevers before entering the building. The scan involved non-contact infrared thermometers. St. Louis Circuit Court suspended all jury trials through April 10.

Meanwhile, the top prosecutors in St. Louis city and county took actions to ease jail crowding and reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell said in a statement that anyone arrested for a nonviolent crime who does not appear to pose a threat will be released with a summons to appear in court, rather than be jailed. People already housed at the county justice center awaiting trial will be considered for release if they are accused of a nonviolent or “low-level” crime, Bell said.

The decision is part of a cooperative agreement between his office, judges, the county health department and other county entities, Bell said.

Bell, who took office in January 2019, has made reducing the jail population a priority and said the population has fallen by 30% since he took office.

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner said detention will be sought only for suspects who pose a threat to public safety. She also said her office is seeking “cash bail alternatives” and is taking steps to push back most court cases for 60 days to reduce courtroom contact during the health crisis.

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