By Mark Evans
County and city leaders huddled Monday morning to address the COVID-19 pandemic and increasing calls for a face mask mandate.
Last Friday, the Franklin County Commission issued a face mask mandate. According to the order, anyone 10 years old and above must wear a face mask any time they are in contact with other people in public indoor spaces who are not household members.
There was agreement between the Ste. Genevieve leaders on two points. First, the current and incoming commissioners, Sheriff Gary Stolzer, Prosecuting Attorney Wayne Williams (who was unable to attend) and Mayor Paul Hassler all agreed that face masks need to be worn whenever social distancing is not possible.
Secondly, however, they all also agreed that any mandate that might be passed would be unenforceable.
Presiding Commissioner Garry Nelson said a flurry of messages started coming in as soon as the Franklin County mandate hit the news.
“It was all over the news,” he said. “Everybody saw it, everybody started texting, ‘You always said the commission hasn’t got that authority, but Franklin in County’s doing it.’”
Nelson said he then met with Williams on Friday and asked for Williams’ interpretation of Missouri Revised Statute 192.300.
“He said, ‘You can pass that ordinance if you want to, but I can’t prosecute it,’” Nelson said.
The state statute, which Nelson has quoted numerous times this year, opens by stating that county commissions and health boards “may make, promulgate orders, ordinances, rules and regulations” to protect public health.
However, after a 2017 court case, a paragraph was added at the end of the statute that says “Section that permitted ordinances that both enhanced public health and prevented disease did not authorize county to enact ordinance imposing county wide minimum standards for police.”
Hassler said attorneys have told him that if any such thing were undertaken, it would need to go through the health department, or at least have its backing.
Nelson said that the county had passed an ordinance, giving the health department the ability to enact quarantines. However, the 2017 addition to the state statute would seem to even make this ability questionable.
“I listened to that health department (Zoom) meeting last week, and that was their stand,” Hassler said, “that you can’t police this. So, that was their whole stand for not having a mask mandate, that you can’t enforce it. We’re all in agreement that we can’t enforce it. I’m in no way going to write anyone a ticket for not wearing a mask.”
“The first person you write a ticket to, is going to say, ‘Tell me what law I broke, and talk to my attorney about it,’” Nelson said. “Once again you’ll be hung up in court.”
It comes down to individual choice.
“I wear a mask, not for myself, but for others,” Hassler said “I’m others-minded. I’ve lived my life like that. I know there are people out there who will not wear a mask because, ‘I’m not having the government telling me what I can and can’t do.’ I get that; this is America. But somewhere along the line you have to do it out of the good of your heart for others.”
Before breaking up, the group agreed to issue the statement, “Ste. Genevieve city and County highly recommend these procedures please wear a mask when you cannot social distance.”