Missouri House Sends Bill Clipping Health Officials’ Emergency Powers to Senate

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A bill that would require local governments to approve extensions of public health emergency orders after 15 days is ready for adoption by the Missouri House.

House Bill 75, sponsored by Rep. Jim Murphy (pictured above), was perfected Wednesday in a floor debate and awaits only a floor vote to be transferred to the Senate, where a raft of similar bills are matriculating in committees.

HB 75, which has already passed through the House Special Committee on Small Business and Rules – Legislative Oversight committees, would allow local public health officials to order a closure for no more than 15 days.

Any further orders, or extensions beyond 15 days, must be approved by a city council or county commission under HB 75, which also stipulates that closure extensions be limited to 10 days and be approved by a two-thirds vote of the local city or county government.

HB 75 and the Senate bills were spurred by alleged abuses of emergency authority by county and city public health officials who imposed early closing times, occupancy limits, total closures and penalties for noncompliance on businesses.

Missouri Republicans are particularly incensed by coronavirus mitigation measures imposed in St. Louis County that shut down businesses and restricted operating hours and seating capacities, devastating the county’s restaurant and bar businesses.

Businesses argue the matrix of local regulations are untenable and have resulted in lost profits, job losses and closures. Murphy said the outcry from churches and workers shuttered from their jobs and contact with families over the last year spurred him to file the measure.

HB 75 “gives the public a chance to weigh in,” Murphy said.

Public health officials and medical associations oppose HB 75 and the Senate measures, warning it could hamper experts in an emergency. Democrats said the bill downplays – and could aggravate – ways to foil coronavirus spread.

“I’m actually kind of shocked by what I am hearing today,” said Rep. LaDonna Appelbaum, D-St. Louis. “You all are worried about going to your bars and playing soccer.”

Meanwhile, at least six bills seeking to restrict local officials from imposing emergency health orders that curtail business operations have been swirling about the Senate since early January.

In an effort to coalesce the measures into a comprehensive package, many provisions within the various bills were incorporated into Sen. Bob Onder’s, R-Lake Saint Louis, Senate Bill 12, which was withdrawn on Feb. 10 but has been reintroduced and will perfected on the Senate floor on March 8.

SB 12 would shift emergency authority to city/county councils rather than to an administrator or public health official, but also incorporates provisions from six bills. They are:

  • SB 20 would require 30 days of public comment on any proposed public health restrictions before they can be imposed.
  • SB 21 would create a tax credit for business owners forced to close during a state of emergency, prohibit county health boards from requiring persons in quarantine isolate from members of the same physical household and bar hospitals from restricting visitation by a pregnant or new mother.
  • SB 56 seeks to strip county health boards of the power to impose restrictions and give that authority to elected councils and commissions.
  • SB 31 would require local government boards to agree to extend or end any emergency declared by public health officials after 30 days.
  • SB 67 and SB 68 would prohibit state or local officials from “governing the number of people gathering or residing on private residential property during a declared state of emergency” and “enacting, adopting, maintaining, or enforcing measures that would restrict, directly or indirectly, the free exercise of religion.”

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