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County Executive says he won’t mandate masks

By mid-July, St. Charles County had seen its highest increase in the number of confirmed conronavirus cases – a jump of 465% over 14 days, according to the county’s coronavirus dashboard on July 16. Total confirmed cases had reached 2,052 by that date with 943 of those cases being confirmed in past two weeks.

On July 13, County Executive Steve Ehlmann stood before the County Council to share his bi-monthly report and admitted that things had become ugly.

St Charles coronavirus dashboard – July 16

“I’ve titled this good, bad and the ugly,” he said of the report. “Not all bad news but there is some.”

On July 13, confirmed cases in St. Charles County were up 410% over the 14 days. The total number of people in quarantine was 1,059. Most of the new cases were people in the 20-29 and 30-39 age groups.

This was new. Previously, the highest rate of infection had been among residents of long-term care facilities. Also new was St. Charles County being anything but flat.

Using a slide that showed the cumulative cases per capita from March 17 through July 13, Ehlmann noted: “You can see that from the beginning almost we’ve been on a different trajectory (than either St. Louis City or County). We flattened the curve before anybody else did. We continued to keep that curve very flat – again up until about two weeks ago,” he said, echoing a statement he had made earlier.

Ehlmann said that was good news.

“The other good news,” he said, “is that we have opened up. We have a rather sophisticated system of keeping track of traffic counts. Usually that’s so we can go to MoDOT and tell them, ‘Hey, we need a wider road here …’”

In the age of COVID-19, the tracking system showed something else.

“You can see that when the stay-at-home-order was issued there was a dramatic drop and that continued for three or four weeks but then it started to go up,” Ehlmann said, pointing to a slide that showed traffic trends over the past four month. “Even before the governor said we were going to start opening up, you can see that people were starting to get antsy and they were starting to get out more.”

He said he thought that (in mid-July) the county was at about 90% of normal in terms of businesses being open and people getting out of their homes.

But being out means potentially being exposed to COVID-19.

“The point that I’ve made over and over again is that you can talk about masks, or stay-at-home orders, all those sorts of things but those are all casting a broad net on everybody under the theory that everybody could potentially get the disease and then potentially could pass it on to someone else,” Ehlmann said. “That’s a very broad net.”

And it’s a net Ehlmann is not willing to cast.

He pointed to the county’s low death rate from coronavirus as a positive. In the last 30 days, he said, the county has experienced just seven deaths due to coronavirus; 83.17% of those deaths were people in long-term care facilities, many of whom had comorbidities such as diabetes, lung disease or heart disease.

He also acknowledged the people of St. Charles County. When infected, he said, they have quarantined themselves.

“I have tried to emphasize, from the beginning, the importance of the quarantine as opposed to some of these other methods of trying to keep the number of infections down,” Ehlmann said.

Those other methods include masks, which St. Louis City and County have made mandatory. Ehlmann says he’s not willing to do that. He said he’s been asked if his decision is political. He said it is not.

“It’s not political but it is philosophical. Most of us in this (council chamber) believe in limited government, and most importantly, we believe in listening to the people,” he said. “That’s why I have taken the position that if more masks are needed – and personally, I think that they are and our public health people have been saying that all along – I think it’s the duty of government to educate people to that fact and, in the end, it’s up to them to make that decision.

“We know the groups that are most at risk. Right now, those are the groups that we are trying to reach and educate and try to convince them that even though we are open and even though we were doing great for six weeks, you just can’t go back and start acting the same way you did a year ago. Hopefully, we get to that point but right now we’re not.”

Addressing the topic of economic recovery, Ehlmann said, getting students back to school is part of the solution.

“Here’s what worries me the most,” he said. “As much as anybody, I want to see the economy get going, I want to see us get out of the doldrums that we are in. I think the most important thing for that to happen is to get the kids back to school.” His comment was followed by loud applause from those gathered in the council chamber.

“I think it is essential that they do,” he said. Looking toward the dais, he added, “I think the other former teacher in the room might agree with me not only for the sake of the kids, but also the good of the economy because mom and dad have to get back to work.”

Speaking after Ehlmann, Sen. Bob Onder (R-District 2), echoed that sentiment.

“We need to get kids back to school,” he said.

Onder called attention to his professional experience as an allergist-immunologist and said:

“I’ve been studying this issue very intensively. When you think about our response to the COVID-19 pandemic, I think the word ‘unprecedented’ has to come to everyone’s mind. … The idea of placing an entire society under house arrest, quarantining healthy people – that is unprecedented.”

Onder said he is a believer in masks but that social distancing changes the need for masks as does being outdoors, which he said is why there was no spike after protests in which people were standing shoulder to shoulder.

Following Onder and Sen. Bill Eigel (R-District 23), county council member Joe Cronin (District 1) shared his view, which he said was “a little different perspective on this” drawn from common sense.

“Social distance or wear a mask. I’m appealing to the common sense of the residents of this county,” he said. “Do whatever you want to do but if you’re not going to wear a mask stay the heck away from other people so you’re not going to infect them.

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