Missouri isn’t just the heart of the new COVID-19 outbreak, it’s a political disaster zone

Missouri isn’t just the heart of the new COVID-19 outbreak, it’s a political disaster zone

For some reason, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt believes that protecting the SARS-CoV-2 virus from the threat of masks is his top priority. And this week he has demonstrated that belief both by refusing to meet with the mayor of Kansas City and by filing a lawsuit against St. Louis that’s not just factually incorrect, but riddled with lies meant to disguise Republican failings.

For weeks, cases of COVID-19 have been spilling out of highly Republican counties in southwest Missouri, filling local hospitals, and driving cases to the two cities that flank the state’s glowing red center. Over time, all of Missouri has become caught up in a new wave of disease, as Gov. Mike Parson continued his policy of doing exactly nothing. That sent levels back to where they were in January and brought almost every county in the state to the level of high community spread. All of which puts the state solidly in the areas where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended everyone, including those who are fully vaccinated, should wear masks. 

But of course when St. Louis and Kansas City both tried to follow the updated CDC guidelines, Schmitt immediately moved to protect the freedom of the virus. As NPR reports, that included filing a lawsuit against St. Louis City that was “riddled with data errors.” Only that’s a kind way of saying it. Because what Schmitt actually did in his attack on the city was simply to lie in a way that defends Republicans’ anti-mask frenzy. The lawsuit isn’t just wrong, it’s purposeful disinformation that is meant to both provide fodder for anti-maskers elsewhere and elevate Schmitt’s profile among the anti-science right.

And, unfortunately, on Tuesday night local St. Louis County politicians showed that they had been properly cowed by Schmitt and by an audience of anti-maskers when they voted to overturn a mask mandate imposed by County Executive (and medical doctor) Sam Page.

St. Louis City, for reasons that go back to the Civil War, is not part of St. Louis County. The result is generally an unreasonable proliferation of duplicate, poor-quality services and politically supported racism, racism, racism. Also racism. Under its first Black woman mayor, Tishaura Jones, the city will continue with a mask mandate. But the county … not so much. 

Both St. Louis City and St. Louis County announced a resumption of mask mandates on Monday following the revised CDC guidance. In the case of the county, this announcement was made by the executive’s office and the county health director. But no sooner had Dr. Sam Page, a St. Louis County executive, issued this announcement than the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported several members of the county council were lining up to quash the mandate using a new law recently signed by Parson that gives politicians the ability to override health officials.

A letter from Dr. Faisal Khan, acting director of the St. Louis County Department of Public Health, that appears in The Riverfront Times gives all too keen an insight into that county council meeting. When Khan spoke in favor of a mask mandate, he was not only shouted down, he was called a “fat brown cunt” and a “brown bastard” as he was speaking. One of those busy heckling Khan with claims that he was “un-American” was Mark McCloskey, the pink-shirted attorney who became famous in right-wing circles for waving a gun at protesters who dared walk past his palatial home. (It’s not clear if McCloskey—now a Senate candidate—was one of those who was mocking Khan by doing imitations of Simpson’s character Apu.) As Khan writes in his letter to County Council Chair Rita Heard Days, when he attempted to complain about the abuse raining down on him as he was trying to speak, Days responded by cautioning … Khan. “I have never been subjected to the racist, xenophobic and threatening behavior that greeted me in the County Council meeting last night,” wrote Khan. On the way out of the meeting, Khan flashed a middle finger, for which he is now in unspecified “trouble” with the council. “I have to say, however, that when faced with the racist vitriol that Councilman Fitch has been privately and publicly stoking against me since my appointment, I cannot say I am sorry.” 

As CNN reports, council members may have mocked Khan and refused to listen to medical advice about the need for masks, but they welcomed public comments about “disproven claims about Covid-19 vaccines and alternative treatments.” Following this event, the county council voted to overturn the mask mandate, quashing Page’s order and the advice of the county health department. 

None of this will stop Schmitt from continuing his lawsuit against the city. As the Associated Press reports, Schmitt declared that imposing a mask mandate was “unconstitutional,” especially because there is “a widely available vaccine.” That would be the same vaccine that Schmitt has promised to prevent any company, school, or government office from requiring. As Jones noted, Schmitt is another Republican candidate  for the Senate, and this is another in a line of lawsuits he’s launched that are simply nonsense—such as the lawsuit Schmitt filed last year against the Chinese government. It’s all part of how Missouri taxpayers are contributing to Schmitt’s campaign.

But the lawsuit against St. Louis goes beyond nonsensical. As St. Louis Public Radio notes, Schmitt alleges as part of the suit: “Despite having the most restrictive and unconstitutional orders in Missouri, St. Louis County and St. Louis City suffered some of the highest COVID-19 case rates and death rates in Missouri.”

That’s a lie. A quick trip to the Missouri Department of Health shows that both St. Louis County and St. Louis city are below the state average rate of cases. The worst counties are actually exactly where anyone might suspect: in the reddest rural counties like Taney County (78% for Trump) and Douglas County (84% for Trump), several of which are currently cranking out new cases at 10 times the rate of St. Louis. Schmitt’s lawsuit isn’t a “mistake,”—it’s disinformation, something sure to be cited as an authoritative source by right-wing pundits, other Missouri politicians, and anyone looking to “prove” that masks and social distancing are ineffective.

Meanwhile on the other side of the state, Schmitt has also launched a lawsuit against Kansas City. As KMBC reports, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas announced a new indoor mask mandate on Wednesday, two months after declining cases had led Kansas City to drop previous mask requirements. Lucas made it clear at the time he was responding to the same CDC guidelines that resulted in new mask requirements in St. Louis, because Kansas City is also swept up in a sea of counties where current statistics show “high transmission.” 

Naturally, Schmitt immediately announced that he would stand up for the little virus. “I will be filing a lawsuit to protect your freedoms,” wrote Schmitt. “This mask mandate is about politics and control, not science. You are not subjects but citizens of what has been the freest country in the world and I will always fight for you.” In making this claim, Schmitt didn’t address the CDC guidelines or provide any evidence concerning “science.” As with the St. Louis suit, Schmitt’s action is more about providing himself with talking points in his Senate run than anything having to do with the facts.

On Wednesday morning, Quinton made it clear he had attempted to reason with Schmitt. “I reached out to the office of our State Attorney General for a meeting between the two of us on his legal concerns about the mask mandate in Kansas City,” wrote Quinton, “so that we can address any issues and avoid needless litigation expenses. I am told the AG’s schedule will not allow it.”

Schmitt isn’t concerned about needless expenses. After all, it’s not like he’s paying for all these failed suits. Far from it. Schmitt is using the office of the attorney general to prove that he’s the most extreme extremist in a primary that includes a former governor who was forced to resign from office after he threatened a woman he had blindfolded and bound. And Schmitt has to beat out the guy who waved an AR-15 around at people who dared walk on “his” sidewalk. Schmitt knows that showing he’s more out there than the other Republican candidates will be hard … but he’s putting in a yeoman effort.

St. Louis will keep its mask mandate. Kansas City will keep its mask mandate. St. Louis County council members will revel in how the new law lets them smack down health officials and a county executive they hate. Schmitt will continue filing lawsuits as an act of anti-virtue signaling on everyone else’s dime. Parson will do nothing— sorry, proudly do nothing. 

And Missouri’s hospitals will stay nice and full.

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