COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — The Missouri House on Tuesday voted in favor of barring state and local officials from putting any restrictions on businesses, churches or other non-public entities during public health emergencies, except in certain circumstances.
The Republican-led House voted 117-23 to send the bill to the Senate ahead of a May 14 deadline to pass legislation. If approved by the Republican-led Senate and signed by Republican Gov. Mike Parson, the bill would prevent the state, counties and cities from requiring masks inside businesses, limiting indoor dining at restaurants or ordering other safety measures be followed on non-public property in response to contagious disease outbreaks.
Rep. Ben Baker, a Republican from Neosho who sponsored the bill, said it would also cover houses of worship.
“The response we’ve seen from a wide range of government authorities to the pandemic has been quite the debacle in many cases, and without a doubt a definite intrusion on our liberties," Baker said.
Limits on private property could only be enacted if the state, counties or cities face disease outbreaks of “significantly greater prevalence" than other areas, according to the bill.
Baker said it would be up to officials to determine whether they're facing comparatively worse outbreaks, and residents could sue if they disagree with those decisions.
Parson largely left it up to local governments to decide how to handle the coronavirus pandemic, and several Missouri cities required masks and temporarily banned or limited indoor dining to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
But those choices, especially in the St. Louis area, angered many Republican state lawmakers and residents. Proponents of the House bill have argued that cities went too far in response to the pandemic at the expense of businesses and the economy.
The measure also would ban the state and local governments from ordering someone to quarantine unless they’re definitely infected. It would also shield business and private property owners from criminal or civil liability unless they intentionally expose people to a contagious disease and people get sick.
The vote on the bill comes as some Missouri cities ease their coronavirus restrictions, at least for outdoor activities.
The Springfield City Council passed a bill Monday removing the requirement that people wear masks outdoors in most cases. In a news release, the city cited new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that say fully vaccinated Americans don’t need to cover their faces outdoors anymore unless they are in crowds.
The Springfield-Greene County Health Department determined that just 1,043 of the 28,800 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in those counties since the start of the pandemic were linked to outdoor exposure, with most of those happening at large gatherings such as sporting events.
St. Louis city and county on Monday lifted their limits on the number of people allowed in restaurants, with officials citing a decline in new COVID-19 cases and the increased access to vaccines. Restaurants must still space tables at least 6 feet apart, and masks are required indoors and outdoors if there isn’t enough space to socially distance.
The state health department announced that its weekly review of death records found 66 additional COVID-19-related deaths. Of the 66, 1 each occurred in October, December and February; six were in January; nine were in March; and 48 were in April. All told, Missouri has recorded 8,814 COVID-19 deaths and 503,615 confirmed cases of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.
CDC data shows that just 38.1% of Missouri residents have received at least one vaccine dose. Inmates are doing better, with 47% of Missouri's 10,795 inmates having received at least one dose, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
COVID-19 cases among prisoners and staff have declined sharply since early winter. In December, 455 inmates and 129 employees were infected. The Missouri Department of Corrections said the current count shows 23 active cases among inmates and three among employees.
Associated Press writer Jim Salter contributed to this report from O'Fallon, Missouri.