Missouri lawmakers consider restricting local governments during health emergencies

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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Some lawmakers in Missouri want to put restrictions on how local government can handle shutdowns for businesses, churches, and schools during a pandemic.

Dozens of restaurant and small business owners from across the state testified in front of a House Special Committee on Small Business Tuesday night in favor of taking power away from local governments. Health officials testified against the bill saying that power is important to stop health emergencies like this pandemic from getting worse.

More than 50 people packed inside a hearing room in the statehouse for nearly four hours waiting to testify in favor or against Rep. Jim Murphy’s (R- St. Louis) bill hoping to hamper county executives from making decisions.

“This bill provides a time limit authorities of government entities to order businesses, churches, schools and other public gatherings for a reason of public health and safety,” Murphy said. “Killing small businesses is not a cure for COVID.”

Murphy said House Bill 75 would authorize a public official to order a closure for 15 days. Closures up to 45 days must be authorized by vote of the local government bodies and closures over 45 days would have to be approved by the Department of Health and Senior Services. Anything over 90 days would require approval from the General Assembly.

“So, this is a narrowly structure bill to look at what we need to do to open or close a business,” Murphy said. “What is the fair and right thing to do.”

Last week, Wheelhouse and Start Bar in St. Louis were shut down due to violating COVID restrictions. Both the owner and the manager of the businesses attended the hearing.

“Before COVID, we provided jobs and income for 250 employees with countless trades, vendors, contractors, cleaners, police officers and many other hard-working citizens,” owner Steven Savage said. “When we met with the city, we presented why we blieve we operated within their guidelines.”

Manager of the businesses, Jared Ater told the committee, all their employees are essential.

“The reality of it is, every single individual is essential when it comes to providing for themselves, their family and their loved ones,” Ater said. “It’s not just businesses being shut down, it’s people losing their livelihoods, their lives.”

Ater said the businesses have lost around $8 million due to the closures.

Kansas City bar owner Steve Stegall, owner of The Blue Line, said he wants to know why the mayor could limit the hours his bar is open.

“At 10:01 everybody has got to be out that door because that’s when COVID is going to be there,” Stegall said. “COVID is here 24/7. It doesn’t affect one business any different than the other.”

Rep. Bill Falkner spoke in favor of HB 75 and wants to make it harder for local officials to shut businesses down.

“If a government thinks that they should close for the betterment of the community, then their employees should be paid and the owner should be compensated,” Falkner said.

County health departments and health care workers spoke in opposition of the bill.

“We need to be able to shut down restaurants when there’s a threat to food safety,” Springfield-Green County Health Department Director Clay Goddard said. “My only purpose here tonight is to try to assure that we don’t have unintended consequences cause we do important work.”

Truman Medical Center in Kansas City physician Dr. Todd Shaffer also spoke Tuesday night.

“The role of the county health department and public health is to keep people healthy in ordinary time and in health emergencies,” Shaffer said. This mask can actually stop the coronavirus, from me giving it to you.”

Two other bills heard during the committee, House Bill 547 and 752, would make it legal for customers to buy alcohol to go from restaurants, something some owners said helped them survive during the pandemic.

None of the bills were passed out of the committee, but lawmakers said they hope to revisit them next week.

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