A Missouri representative has introduced a bill that may change how restrictions on gatherings, closures of businesses and other entities in a community are made by local governments and health officials.
House Bill 75, sponsored by Rep. Jim Murphy of St. Louis County, addresses public health and safety closures, which have become a more prevalent occurrence during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Murphy said the bill will allow local health officials and local governments to work in conjunction with one another to make sure these restrictions are the best option for their communities.
He noted that there have been some issues in regard to oversight among local health officials and local governments.
“Pretty much it started out because there are eight or nine counties around the state where the health departments decided that they could make their own rules,” Murphy said.
He said in one instance, a health department and the county executive in St. Louis County found a loophole in the Missouri statutes that allowed them to make these regulations without any legislative oversight of the county council, who would normally have a say in these regulations.
Murphy said the reason this becomes problematic is because an unelected official, who is only accountable to a county executive, is making rules and regulations that impact their entire communities.
HB 75 states it will “provide time-limited authority for political subdivisions to order closures of businesses, churches, schools or other public gatherings for reasons of public health or safety.” This means that for each order to shut down, local economies will have to go through an approval process depending on how long the shutdown is.
The bill allows local health officials to order a shutdown for up to 15 days without legislative oversight by a local government. For closures up to 45 days, a local full governing body must provide a vote in favor of the closure. Closures from 45 days to 90 days require approval from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. Lastly, closures that go beyond 90 days must be approved by the Missouri General Assembly if it is in session, or by the Joint Committee on Disaster Preparedness and Awareness.
Murphy filed the same bill in August 2020 during a special session called by Gov. Mike Parson. He said the only reason he filed the bill, HB 29, during the special session was to show the Missouri legislator that he had some concerns and wanted them to be aware of the situation. Fully knowing this bill would not be seen during special session, he refiled the bill during regular session this year, and it has now gone through a public hearing with the Missouri Senate.
HB 75 passed through the House with a 115-44 vote. It is currently waiting to be heard on the Senate floor for a vote. If it is approved by the Senate, it will be sent to Gov. Parson for him to sign into law.
Murphy said the bill will help provide legislative oversight in bigger communities that are seeing issues among its health officials and governing bodies not collaborating.
For small communities like Maryville, he said it will simply be a formality between the two institutions.
Nodaway County Health Department Administrator Tom Patterson said in an email to The Missourian that he supported HB 75.
“I see this bill as essentially ensuring a process is in place at each political entity to have a closure decision reviewed by the governing body,” Patterson said.
He said that he believes that these closures should be voted on by local governing bodies if they are in support of the order requested by local health officials.
Maryville City Councilman Tye Parsons did not support HB 75, saying it was a reactive bill that takes power away from local governments.
Councilman Parsons said when City Council was discussing the first emergency order, which restricted a lot of commerce in Maryville in March 2020, they took into consideration what local health officials, including Patterson and those at Mosaic Medical Center - Maryville, recommended and what other communities were doing.
“We really leaned heavily on our local experts,” Councilman Parsons said.
He noted that the state, particularly Parson’s office, had repeatedly told local governments that orders such as closures and mask mandates should be made at the local level. With HB 75, the state government will have to be involved in these decisions if the closure time requested is more than 90 days.
“I don’t see how you can have it both ways,” Councilman Parsons said.
Councilman Parsons also said that he believes this bill is supported by those who felt their ability to function as business was infringed upon.
He noted that the bill seemed vague in describing what entities were considered part of the “political subdivisions” that would be making these decisions regarding local shutdowns.
Councilman Parsons said this approval process that would be put in place could delay closures if they are needed.
“In the case of public health, if we’re in a pandemic, if the local healthcare experts say we need to shut down, then we need to be able to shut down,” Councilman Parsons said.