A capacity crowd filled the seats at the St. Charles Executive Building on Monday, Nov. 30 for the second County Council meeting of the month, and though mostly decorous, those gathered made clear their points of view regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.
Armed with signs and placards, many members of the crowd, during public comments, took the council and County Executive Steve Ehlmann to task for refusing to issue a county-wide mask mandate and for keeping schools open for in-person learning. However, some of the spectators did speak in favor of the official county position on masks and on businesses remaining open and in operation, if possible.
The size of the crowd seemed to take council chairman Terry Hollander (District 5) by surprise, and he addressed the assemblage in no uncertain terms stating: “…there has been some miscommunication…the county council will not be considering any kind of mask mandate. It is not on the agenda, and will not be considered tonight … we will accept public comments, but there will be no vote on the issue.”
However, the board did deviate from the posted agenda, slightly, to highlight Ehlmann’s oral report on the topic.
In his public comment, Ehlmann acknowledged the significance of the situation and reviewed his actions since the upsurge in COVID cases since last summer. He pointed to the campaign for voluntary mask-wearing and related billboards across the county, as well as the requirement that county employees wear masks while on the clock. When discussing the issue of a possible mask mandate, he argued that the county should not mandate that which cannot be enforced, and noted that St. Louis City and County have had difficulty in achieving public compliance with their mask mandates.
Ehlmann also explained the necessity of issuing an 11 p.m. closing time for bars and restaurants. He said that action was aimed at helping to reduce overflow crowds that Ehlmann claimed came from patrons crossing over from St. Louis City and County, and even some from Illinois, particularly over the Thanksgiving holiday. He did stress that St. Charles County was in full compliance with Gov. Mike Parson’s orders on public gatherings, social distancing and general safety.
Ehlmann acknowledged that a substantial segment of public opinion disagreed on current policies, especially on the issue of keeping the schools open for in-person learning. However, he stressed that the county’s approach with an emphasis on voluntarism was for the best.
In closing, he encouraged people to express their ideas freely, stating that county government was willing to listen to good ideas.
Ehlmann then ceded his remaining time to Sen. Bob Onder, who discussed his recent interactions with healthcare professionals and the current crisis. Onder, a practicing physician, expressed disappointment with St. Louis County officials, saying they were overemphasizing masks, to the exclusion of other ideas.
“The data is conflicting and not that convincing,” Onder said. He also stated the many citizens would engage in civil disobedience if masks were mandated, and that the voluntary approach was more in keeping with national tradition.
Onder’s statement led to a fairly sharp exchange with council member Joe Cronin (District 1) on the issue.
“All medical professionals, except you, are saying masks, masks, masks!” Cronin exclaimed. To which Onder replied that he could cite numerous studies contradicting Cronin’s assumption. He cited the New England Journal of Medicine as his own authority.
Onder wrapped up his presentation by stating that Operation Warp Speed, and the development of a vaccine, will be the ultimate solution to the grave pandemic problem.