Missouri lawmakers OK checks on COVID business closures

By SUMMER BALLENTINE Associated Press

COLUMBIA — Extended business closures by local health departments, as seen earlier in the coronavirus pandemic, would require city council approval under a bill passed Thursday by the Missouri House. 

Primarily Republican lawmakers, particularly incensed by frequent business restrictions enacted in St. Louis and St. Louis County to stem the spread of COVID-19, want health officials to get buy in from elected local governing bodies before shutting down stores. 

The legislation, passed 115-44, would still allow local health directors to close businesses, schools and churches, but only for 15 days at a time. After that, they would need approval from the city council or other local governing boards to extend closures.

The threshold for keeping businesses closed would increase over time. Eventually, it would require unanimous approval from the local governing body to extend closures for up to 10 more days at a time.

St. Louis Republican bill sponsor Rep. Jim Murphy said he crafted the bill in response to business owners and citizens who "yelled for help and wanted some say in their lives when it came to how health departments restricted their businesses."

He said his proposal still allows health departments to respond to emergencies but adds oversight and public input on those decisions. 

Some Democrats also supported the bill, although others raised concerns about local legislative bodies rather than medical professionals being tasked with oversight of health-related decisions. 

The measure now heads to the Senate for consideration. 

Meanwhile, the state revealed that weeks of public data presented by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services that suggests a high rate of COVID-19 vaccinations among multiracial residents is likely inaccurate. 

State officials said Wednesday that the earlier data overcounted residents with more than one racial heritage, KCUR reported. As a result, the publicly available information suggesting that more than one-third of multiracial Missourians has received shots is likely wrong. Officials say it's unclear to what extent the overcounting skewed the data.

Health officials say accurate racial breakdowns are critical to understanding if the vaccine is being equitably distributed to minority communities.

Health department spokeswoman Lisa Cox said the state initially hoped to be able to correct the data quickly, "but the more conversations we have with providers, the more we find further complexities of the situation," she told KCUR in an email.

Cox also said the problem appeared to be related to data reported by vaccinators. She said that data shows a higher number of "individuals reported with more than one race" than the state expects.

The state on Thursday reported 530 new confirmed cases of the coronavirus, and three new deaths. Missouri has cited 482,224 confirmed cases and 8,300 deaths since the pandemic began.