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Judge deciding fate of new St. Louis County mask mandate

The debate over whether the St. Louis County Council has the authority to override a mask mandate issued by county health officials was in the hands of a judge after a virtual court hearing on Tuesday.

County Executive Sam Page and county Health Director Dr. Faisal Khan issued the mask mandate, effective July 26, as the St. Louis region faced a resurgence of COVID-19 cases. The St. Louis County Council voted last week to rescind the mandate but Page insisted the mask requirement remained in effect.

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office sued, seeking a restraining order to block the mask order.

During Tuesday’s virtual hearing, Missouri Solicitor General John Sauer argued state law clearly gives political subdivisions such as the County Council the power to rescind public health orders, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

The “unlawful mask mandate,” Sauer said, would cause “human harms from the social isolation and the impact on children, the impact on small businesses and things of that nature.”

Neal Perryman, a lawyer representing St. Louis County, argued that issuing a temporary restraining order would only cause more uncertainty in the county, particularly if a higher court overturns it later.

“This is not some absurd, crazy idea that the state’s brief would lead you to believe that it is,” Perryman said. “It says wear a mask when you’re in a private space or indoor public space with exceptions to deal with religious issues, people with disabilities, people that are hard of hearing.”

Tuesday’s hearing did not consider a similar mask order in the city of St. Louis.

Circuit Judge Ellen “Nellie” Ribaudo said she will issue a written order before the end of the day Tuesday, and that order will not consider personal beliefs about wearing masks.

“I want to make it clear that any decision this court would make is not specific to those issues,” Ribaudo said. “This is a legal decision that this court would be entertaining, not a political issue.”

The legal fight comes as Missouri reported 574,125 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, an increase of 1,863 from the previous day. The state reported there have been 12,524 positive cases over the last seven days, with an average of 1,789 cases a day.

COVID-19 has claimed 9,755 lives in Missouri since the pandemic began, an increase of 88 deaths from Monday. Those numbers include 72 deaths that had not been previously reported to the state, according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

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