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

Parson Signs Law Limiting Power Of Local Officials To Issue Emergency Health Orders

Local governments will have their ability to enact public health restrictions curtailed under a law that Gov. Mike Parson signed Tuesday.

Public health experts say the law could hamstring governments and put lives at risk, but Parson said the new rules require local governments to make a strong case when issuing public health orders.

“This legislation I am signing today requires local leaders to be more transparent in their reasoning and accountable for their decisions when it comes to public health orders,” Parson said.

Missouri counties and towns will only be able to issue orders that restrict access to businesses, churches and schools for 30 days when the governor declares a public health emergency. Without it, they can impose restrictions for 21 days.

Local officials can only extend those orders if a city or county council approves.

The bill also bars local governments from requiring people to prove they have been vaccinated against COVID-19 to use public services. Parson said that he encourages people to receive the vaccine but that it should be a personal choice.

The new process is about holding governments accountable and increasing transparency, its supporters said.

Its limits should not be viewed as a burden, said state Rep. John Wiemann, R-O'Fallon, who sponsored the bill in the House.

"It should be a hassle when you're closing down an economy, you're closing down businesses, churches and schools,” Weimann told KCUR. “They have to make sure they make the right call and that they're doing what truly is in the best interest of the public.”

But local control is vital during public health emergencies, said epidemiologists and local health officials.

Pandemics like the coronavirus crisis affect different parts of the country and state in different ways at different times, said Elvin Geng, an infectious disease professor at Washington University.

“Especially at the onset of an epidemic, it will be much worse in many places whereas other places won’t be affected at all,” he said. “It’s appropriate that local jurisdictions should have the ability to make decisions that are best for those jurisdictions.”

Geng and his colleagues have studied the effects of local restrictions in St. Louis and St. Louis County and have found they saved thousands of lives, he said.

No existing public health orders in St. Louis County are affected by the new legislation, county spokesman Doug Moore said in a statement.

“Public health decisions are best made by public health experts in the Department of Public Health,” Moore said. “Members of the County Council will participate in the very difficult decisions on protecting the health and safety of those in our most vulnerable communities.”

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