Missouri House, reacting to COVID orders, limits power of local health departments

The bill now goes to the Senate, where a more expansive measure awaits floor debate


Jeanne Kuang
The Kansas City Star
        
JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri House pushed back on local public health authorities for their COVID-related orders on Thursday, passing a bill to limit their ability to close businesses, schools and public gatherings.

The measure would allow them to order closures to stop the spread of disease only for 15 days. After that, extensions of the order would require approval of two thirds of elected lawmakers, such as city or county councils. After 45 days, another extension would need unanimous approval.

House lawmakers also passed a clause to make the bill effective immediately upon approval. The bill now goes to the Senate, where a more expansive measure awaits floor debate.

The Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City, Missouri. The House passed a bill on Thursday that would limit the ability of local public health departments to close businesses, schools and public gatherings.
The Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City, Missouri. The House passed a bill on Thursday that would limit the ability of local public health departments to close businesses, schools and public gatherings. (Wayne Mckown/Dreamstime/TNS)

Debate over the measures underscored Missouri politicians' long and uneven struggle over local control, which has recently encompassed topics such as police department residency requirements and handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Early in the pandemic last year, Gov. Mike Parson resisted calls to institute a statewide mask mandate and business restrictions, repeatedly deferring to local control. As the virus spread, large municipalities including Kansas City, Jackson County and St. Louis County instituted such orders, which in some cases have drawn outrage from business owners.

Sponsor Rep. Jim Murphy, a St. Louis Republican, said the bill does not curb local officials' powers.

"It does not prohibit them from reacting to an emergency, it just puts oversight and public input to their lives," he said Thursday.

Rep. Patty Lewis, a Kansas City Democrat, said it would require "unnecessary hoops and barriers when our local experts need to focus on the health care crisis at hand."

Though Parson defended local control, he said at a press conference last month, "I don't think there's any question sometimes that on the local levels, they stepped over their bounds in different areas," particularly with school closures.

Last week, he urged municipalities that still have mask mandates and business restrictions to "seriously take a good look" at them.

The Senate's bill would cut back on health departments' quarantine orders, prohibit local governments from instituting emergency orders that would interfere with the exercise of religion and give tax credits to businesses affected by shutdowns.

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