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Covering state lawmakers, bills, and policy emerging from Jefferson City.

White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Visits Missouri, Stresses Importance Of Masks

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson welcomed Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House Coronavirus Relief Coordinator, for a roundtable discussion with health officials and community stakeholders on Tuesday, Aug. 18.
Office of Missouri Governor
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson welcomed Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House Coronavirus Relief Coordinator, for a roundtable discussion with health officials and community stakeholders on Tuesday, Aug. 18.

Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, emphasized the importance of masks in fighting the pandemic after a roundtable discussion Tuesday with Missouri Gov. Mike Parson and health officials in Jefferson City.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or Republican,” Birx said. “You need to wear a mask and socially distance.”

Parson has encouraged mask use for those who “feel comfortable” but has failed to wear a mask at many public events and has accused the media of making it a “political issue.”

Birx fell short of recommending Missouri mandate masks statewide and instead highlighted the approach in Texas, which requires masks in every community that has more than 20 cases.

“If you can get 100% of the retailers to require masks, as we saw in Branson and as we saw in some of the other smaller communities, it sends the message to the community that masks are important,” Birx said.

Birx praised Missouri’s “box-in” strategy in an outbreak area, which involves testing, isolating all infected people, locating those who may have come into contact with infected people and self-quarantining for two weeks.

The doctor also echoed what Parson has said for months, that not all of Missouri is equal when it comes to the spread of the virus. Urban areas, like St. Louis and Kansas City, have seen larger outbreaks than rural parts of Missouri, which may need to have more restrictive guidelines. But Parson noted that Missouri has implemented a plan similar to the one in Texas, because most areas with more cases do have mask mandates.

“We know in the state of Missouri where our high areas are that are already mask mandated,” Parson said. “We already know that, so a lot of areas like that, that comes out of the decision process.”

However, those mandates are put in place and enforced by local officials, not the governor as seen in the model in Texas.

Repeating his continuous message to Missourians, Parson said the most significant piece of information from Birx was the importance of personal responsibility. Parson did not point to any specific changes he wanted to make after discussions with Birx but did say he would be open to updating recommendations as needed.

“I think every day this can be a moving target,” Parson said. “I think you need to be able to make changes with the data that you receive and where we’re going in the state.”

In Missouri, the average number of new cases per day is up 25% since last week. As of Tuesday, the state has had just under 69,500 cases, with more than 1,400 deaths. There were nearly 800 new confirmed cases in the past 24 hours.

Special session

On Monday, the Missouri House heard testimony on several bills related to Parson’s special legislative session on violent crime.

Lawmakers have now heard legislation related to the governor’s goals except concurrent jurisdiction, which would allow the attorney general to prosecute murder cases in St. Louis.

At a press conference on Tuesday, Parson said he hoped the Legislature would move quicker. He made the call in mid-July. He also said he believes there is too much misinformation being spread about concurrent jurisdiction.

“The attorney general cannot go in there and just take over cases from the city prosecutor,” Parson said. “Number one, it has to be 90 days before anything’s not filed for that to happen. And two, the local level has to ask the AG to get involved.”

The “local level” includes any chief law enforcement officer, Parson said when he announced the decision to amend his call for a special session.

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner has called the move “a vehicle to interfere with the clear discretion of a democratically elected local prosecutor.”

Parson was also asked Tuesday about a proposal by Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, to mandate masks inside the Capitol during the session. This came after a handful of lawmakers were not wearing masks in committee hearings. Parson said he was going to leave that decision up to the House and Senate.

Copyright 2020 St. Louis Public Radio

Jaclyn Driscoll is the Jefferson City statehouse reporter for St. Louis Public Radio. She joined the politics team in 2019 after spending two years at the Springfield, Illinois NPR affiliate. Jaclyn covered a variety of issues at the statehouse for all of Illinois' public radio stations, but focused primarily on public health and agriculture related policy. Before joining public radio, Jaclyn reported for a couple television stations in Illinois and Iowa as a general assignment reporter.