St. Louis City and County leaders introduce strict measures to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 across the region

By Charlotte Beard

On March 17, public officials across the St. Louis region and health experts displayed unity amidst their practicing social distancing as they addressed COVID-19 concerns and presented executive orders to combat the pandemic during a press conference.

Laura Kaiser, President and CEO of SSM Health opened the press conference and introduced the doctors in attendance who have served as health experts for the St. Louis region during the crisis. In attendance were Dr. Alexander Garza, SSM Health Chief Medical Officer; Dr. Clay Dunagan, BJC Chief Clinical Officer; and Dr. Keith Starke, Mercy Health Chief Quality Officer.

“Together, these three doctors are providing real-time medical expertise to our public officials while serving in critically important roles within their own respective health systems,” stated Kaiser. “This is a public health emergency, the likes of which none of us have seen in our lifetimes. As a citizen, I thank all of the leaders that are present today for working together to coordinate this response.” 

Other experts and officials in attendance were Jeff Johnston, Senior Vice President and Regional President for Mercy’s Eastern Missouri region; Richard J. Liekweg, President and Chief Executive Officer of BJC HealthCare, Dr. Fredrick Echols, St. Louis City Public Health Director; Lyda Krewson, St. Louis City Mayor; Dr. Sam Page, St. Louis County Executive; Steve Ehlmann, St. Charles County Executive; and Tim Brinker, Franklin County Presiding Commissioner.

Krewson addressed the regional decision to reduce the number of people in public gatherings. 

“Our unified focus right now is on the health and safety of everyone who lives in the St. Louis region,” stated Krewson. “In response to this crisis our teams have come together as a regional team to coordinate as much as we possibly can in response to this crisis and ensure that the public has information in a consistent and in a clear way. On Sunday (March 15) we all met as a team and agreed to restrict events and gatherings across the St. Louis region to no more than 50 people. This was based on CDC guidance at the time; the CDC guidance and our restriction remain in place today. We also recommended that schools across the region close no later than tomorrow (March 18). This is a decision, (to close), that most of the schools also came to themselves. I want to thank all our schools, faith leaders, business owners, health care providers, and most importantly—our residents – for rallying together to follow these very important guidelines. (Currently), there is nothing more important than recognizing social distancing in the slowing of the COVID-19 virus.”

“As a medical doctor, I certainly understand how the coronavirus is impacting our community,” stated St. Louis County Executive, Sam Page during the March 17 conference. “We all are prepared; this is a serious challenge. We are working together – our regional leaders and our health community. The role of St. Louis County in this crisis has been to prepare, to educate and to respond. Our response so far has been to limit the spread of this virus in our community. But we must stay ahead of it. We must face our actions on the advice of public health experts and the leadership of our hospital systems, and they are telling us about social distancing techniques. You’ve all heard about it and you’re seeing it today as a visual. Today I signed an executive order that requires every place of public accommodations in St. Louis County to institute social distancing measures as much as possible with our employees and the customers. I think it’s safe to say that everyone is familiar with social distancing, but it bears repeating. Make sure you’re standing six-feet apart, avoid face-to-face contact whenever possible, hold meetings online – video conferencing or over the phone.”

Page further shared that public health experts advised that service restrictions placed on bars and restaurants will save lives, as they have observed to be the case around the country. As a result, he also signed an executive order, which went into effect at midnight March 20, restricting services to carryout/delivery, curbside, and drive-thru services. Due to the burden Page believed the measure would have on business owners, he engaged in conversations with businesses prior to implementing the order.

The regional leaders expressed their goal of encouraging people to practice social distancing in lieu of closing businesses. Tim Brinker, Franklin County Presiding Commissioner shared that Franklin County had also taken measures to implement the same bar and restaurant restrictions as did St. Charles County Executive Ehlmann. Krewson stated that St. Louis City would implement the same measures for restaurants only.

When asked about the bar and restaurant restriction reinforcement, Page shared that he found during his conversations with restaurant owners that many of them had already made the transition to carryout services and he does not anticipate any need for a lot of reinforcement action. In response to a question about the possibility of “rogue” business owners, Ehlmann stated that there are measures in place to issue citations if necessary. The Health Department should be contacted to report violations.

“(Businesses) recognize that not only do they want to do the right thing for the community, but they don’t want to expose their employees to any more risks than they have to,” stated Page concerning possible violators.

When asked about the businesses monitoring the temperatures of staff that report to work, Page stated that the measure had not yet been implemented.

On March 21, Krewson and Page went a step further and mandated residents stay home beginning Monday, March 23 with exceptions only for groceries, health care and critical household duties. The order excludes first responders, health care workers, plus the employees of a list of other “essential” businesses, when those workers are on duty.

Each order lasts at least 30 days and, if violated, carries a potential misdemeanor charge. Restaurants and bars will still be able to provide carryout meals.

St. Louis County’s order bars gatherings “of any number of people” outside homes or businesses and limits indoor gatherings of 10 or more people. The county’s order also bans travel except for “essential activities.”

Prior to the day of the press conference, Ferguson-Florissant School District had made its decision to close schools, March 18 through April 3. The staff were provided training to conduct online instruction for students (who were provided devices) while school is closed with exception to spring break which is scheduled for the week of March 23. Leslie Hogshead, Board of Education President, states that meals are being provided during the district’s closing, with exception to spring break. For more information visit https://www.fergflor.org.

The Hazelwood School District is also closed through April 3. Hazelwood School District will deliver ‘grab and go’ meals to students during the closure with exception to spring break. For more information about its closure visit https://www.hazelwoodschools.org.

Both Florissant and Hazelwood have announced its other measures to combat the spread of the virus. Mayor Lowery of Florissant decided to close the James J. Eagan and JFK Community Centers temporarily after his meeting with Cheryl Thompson-Stimage, Director of Parks & Recreation. After March 31, the decision to keep the community centers closed or to reopen will be reevaluated. As a result of the two facility’s closings, all classes, rentals and upcoming Easter events are cancelled. For the latest updates and additional details for Florissant, visit https://www.florissantmo.com.

The city of Hazelwood has canceled and postponed major events and suspended community programs. Effective March 17, the city began limiting public access to its city hall. In accordance with the order from Chief Justice George Draper III, Hazelwood Municipal Court sessions are closed through April 3. In addition, the Community Center and the Civic Center East will be closed until April 3 and all rentals for that time period are cancelled. Re-bookings after April 3 or refunds are available. The Adult Egg Hunt is postponed from April 3 to April 10. The Senior Bus will continue normal operations. For the latest updates and additional details for Hazelwood, visit http://www.hazelwoodmo.org.

Sources for the city of Ferguson state that all non-critical public meetings (boards and commissions and neighborhood group or association meetings) have been cancelled until further notice. Public buildings such as the fire houses, the community center and the event center have been closed. Its city hall will be open by appointment and the police department will be open on a limited basis. For the latest updates and additional details for Ferguson, visit https://www.fergusoncity.com.

Ehlmann addressed measures concerning gaming boats.

“The medical professionals have advised us that the people at those gaming boats are probably among the most vulnerable because of their age—because of possible prior medical conditions,” stated Ehlmann. “Today we found out that the gaming commission has closed the boats and I think that is a tremendous move forward.”

Mike Leara, Missouri Gaming Commission Chairman, stated that once local governments began taking action to limit public gatherings to no more than 50, it became apparent that the casinos couldn’t remain open. The casinos are scheduled to remain closed through March 30.

In addition to measures taken by the St. Louis region to deal with the pandemic, some local businesses are seeking to ease the stress of COVID-19 along with recent actions taken by the federal government. Effective March 18, Schnucks began reserving 6 to 7 a.m. daily for shoppers aged 60 and above and for those who are most at risk of COVID-19. Leadership aims to make this segment of the community a bit more comfortable while shopping in its stores.

CUTLINE: Photos by Charlotte Beard Businesses across St. Louis County have been forced to close or limit their services while grocery stories struggle to keep essential items stocked on shelves.