JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri lawmakers pushed back Wednesday against local coronavirus restrictions, passing legislation limiting the duration of public health orders that have shut down businesses and schools and limited how many people can gather.
The legislation would limit emergency orders restricting businesses, churches, schools or gatherings to 30 days, unless extended by the local governing body. It would take effect immediately upon Gov. Mike Parson's signature, meaning it could affect pandemic restrictions still in place in St. Louis County or other jurisdictions. It also would affect any future local health orders.
“We want to be able to get this enforced as soon as possible,” said House Speaker Pro Tem John Wiemann, a Republican from O’Fallon who handled the bill.
The House and Senate passed the legislation by overwhelming votes and with little discussion. Lawmakers have complained repeatedly during this year's session about local pandemic restrictions that they say infringe on individual liberties and the ability to earn a living.
The legislation would allow local governing bodies to halt public health orders at any time by a majority vote. It also would prohibit cities and counties that receive public funds from requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination to use public accommodations or transportation systems.
Lawmakers also were nearing final approval Wednesday on separate legislation that would allow businesses affected by restrictive city of county orders to receive a property tax credit for the time their property use was limited.
“If a county shuts down a business, then they don’t have to pay taxes while they were shut down,” said Sen. Andrew Koenig, a Republican from St. Louis County who sponsored the bill.
Another part of that legislation seeks to boost movie theaters and concert venues that took a hit due to the pandemic. It would provide a sales tax break for tickets and concessions they sell during a nearly two year period beginning Aug. 28 and extending through June 30, 2023.
Coronavirus cases in Missouri have declined significantly from their winter peak and many local officials have relaxed restrictions that were introduced to slow the spread of the disease.
After initially imposing statewide restrictions, Republican Gov. Mike Parson allowed businesses in Missouri to reopen in May 2020, just months into the coronavirus pandemic. Since then, he has deferred to local officials to impose restrictions.
St. Louis city and county jointly announced the easing of some restrictions on May 2, including the decision to allow restaurants to reopen to full capacity after more than a year of reduced capacity and hours due to the coronavirus. A midnight curfew also was lifted.
But some restrictions remain. Social distancing is still required and some restaurant owners say that restriction means they can’t truly reopen to full capacity. Tables and parties must still be 6 feet apart.
Also, organizers of events involving more than 500 people must still submit safety plans to the county health department. And St. Louis County continues to require face coverings inside businesses, even for those who are fully vaccinated.
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt filed suit against the county on Tuesday seeking a court order to remove the restrictions. Democratic County Executive Sam Page said Wednesday that the county’s efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 have been challenged many times unsuccessfully, and that he’s confident the court won’t intervene.
Associated Press writer Jim Salter contributed to this report from O'Fallon, Missouri.