Officials urge caution when Missouri virus order lifts

Associated Press
People stand by marks on the ground meant to encourage social distancing while waiting in line to get drivers licenses and vehicle registrations outside the Warrensburg License Office Monday, May 4, 2020, in Warrensburg, Mo. The privately run facility reopened Monday after being closed for about six weeks during stay-at-home orders that were enacted to stem the spread of COVID-19 and ended today for much of the state.

COLUMBIA — Missouri's governor on Thursday lauded the end of a statewide social distancing order next week, even as the number of coronavirus cases in the state grows.

Republican Gov. Mike Parson said COVID-19 is not gone, but "at some point government has to get out of the way and let people live their lives and regulate their own selves."

"We are at that time in the state of Missouri," he said. "I know Missourians will continue doing the right thing."

Missouri's statewide order requiring 6-foot social distancing, limiting capacity in stores and banning visits to nursing homes expires after Monday, although it's unclear if health officials have done much to enforce it since it took effect June 1. 

The health department on Thursday reported that there have been 15,390 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state, up 477 since Tuesday. Twenty more deaths were reported since then, bringing the statewide death toll to 860 deaths. 

State data show cases increased more than 6% over the past week, although that data is behind by about three days. 

Parson cited ramped-up testing, enough personal protective equipment, adequate hospital capacity and access to data on the virus' spread throughout the state as reasons for his confidence in allowing the social distancing order to expire. 

Randall Williams, who heads the state Department of Health and Senior Services, said the rate of the virus' spread from one infected person to another has more than halved since the start of the pandemic in Missouri. He said at the beginning, one infected person was expected to spread the virus to close to three other people. Now the spread is closer to one-to-one. 

Williams said people should continue to social distance, wash their hands regularly and take other steps to minimize the risk of the virus having a resurgence.

"We've worked so hard to get to where we are," Williams said. "We just do not want to, due to lack of diligence, backslide."

Local officials can enact stricter guidelines even after the statewide order lifts, Parson said. 

The governor also extended a state of emergency through the rest of the year so Missouri can continue spending federal coronavirus aid money. And he kept in place an order temporarily tossing a requirement that people show up in person to get documents notarized.

Parson, a cattle rancher, said the Missouri State Fair won't be canceled this year. 

Parson has been eager to get the state's economy back running after it took a nosedive during the pandemic. 

Another 19,820 Missourians filed initial unemployment claims last week, continuing a steady decline in such claims since mid-April, state labor officials said Thursday. 

The number of claims was down from 20,459 the previous week. Unemployment claims have steadily declined since 101,722 claims were filed in the week ending April 11. 

The peak of claims was 104,230 for the week ending March 28, when stay-at-home orders in response to the coronavirus pandemic began to take effect.

With St. Louis County scheduled to completely reopen Monday, a gym business and the county have agreed to drop a lawsuit filed after two gyms a opened despite a county stay-at-home order. The county will permit gyms, theaters, fitness centers and pools to reopen Monday.

Attorneys for the county and the House of Pain agreed to drop the case, according to a court filing on Wednesday, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

House of Pain gyms in Maryland Heights and Chesterfield  reopened in defiance of the county restrictions, sparking county and federal lawsuits. House of Pain attorney W. Christopher McDonough argued the county regulations conflicted with state and federal laws. 


Associated Press writer Margaret Stafford contributed to this report from Liberty, Mo.