Parson issues stay-at-home order, blunting criticism despite limited changes
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After weeks of resisting calls for a statewide stay-at-home order to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson issued one Friday.
In an impassioned speech, he hit back at critics who accused him of dawdling as other governors acted, and he spoke forcefully about his love for the state and the need for everyone to come together.
“Now more than ever, we must all make sacrifices,” Parson said. “This is not about any one individual person. This is about our families, friends, neighbors, and the entire state of Missouri. For the sake of all Missourians, be smart, be responsible, and stay home, Missourians.”
But the order didn't do much beyond what Parson had already mandated weeks ago, meaning some parts of the state will almost certainly continue to have tougher rules than others — a patchwork that local public health officials and health care providers had hoped to avoid with a statewide stay-at-home mandate.
"It is a good start, and I appreciate the governor's effort, but it was the thrill of victory followed by the agony of mediocrity when the details became clear," said Dr. James Blaine, a councilor with the Greene County Medical Society, which called for a statewide stay-at-home order March 23.
Notably, the new rules, which take effect Monday and run through April 24, still allow businesses deemed "non-essential" by the federal government to stay open.
Those businesses still have to keep people 6 feet apart and avoid having more than 10 in a single space, but Parson's initial March 23 order already required that of everyone anywhere.
Businesses can also apply for exemptions from those requirements with the state Department of Economic Development.
Springfield, Kansas City, St. Louis and Columbia have all enacted somewhat stricter standards and closed businesses deemed nonessential to limit the number of places the virus can spread, as have other states.
But Parson, a Republican running for a full, four-year term as governor this year, made clear he thought that was a mistake.
"Many orders were put into place earlier on in other states and many cities without thinking about the unintended consequences," he said. "Hundreds of businesses were declared essential. Thousands were declared non-essential."
He noted that more than 100,000 new claims for unemployment benefits have been filed in the past two weeks and said, "I'm sure they would all tell you that their jobs were essential."
Parson also said "medical experts" had told him that in some instances, the "essential" businesses have become hotbeds for virus spread as people flock to places that remain open.
(When asked who the medical experts were, a spokeswoman for Parson said the governor speaks regularly with multiple infectious disease experts, but she did not have their names available. Parson himself did not take questions after speaking, a departure from recent practice.)
To address that, Parson issued guidelines requiring "essential" retail stores to keep the number of people inside to small fractions of their normal occupancy.
People will still be able to access essential services like grocery stores, gas stations and banks, and may engage in outdoor recreation provided that necessary precautions are taken. Schools will remain closed until at least April 24, as will state office buildings.
The order allows for more stringent orders, including those already in place in Springfield and Greene County, which Parson cast as him recognizing that local officials can best decide what their communities need.
That was of little comfort to local public health officials and health care providers who wanted a uniform stay-at-home order limiting non-essential business across the state, though.
Dr. Blaine, the Greene County Medical Society councilor, worried about co-working spaces where people may still be touching the same equipment, or gyms where someone could cough on a machine that could be used by others even after they leave.
He also worried about hair salons and barbershops, where people are often close to one another. Parson's distancing requirements would appear to apply to those businesses, though they could theoretically win an exemption.
All of those kinds of places have the potential to be super-spreading sites where many people catch the virus at once, Blaine said.
"We'd like to have something a little stronger," he remarked. "It'd be nice to have some directions laid out for expectations as far as the non-essential businesses."
Springfield public health chief Clay Goddard, who along with other city and county public health officials called for a statewide stay-at-home order March 20, also worried about continuing with a patchwork approach.
He said local officials could take their own action to help, but said he'd "have to see how it comes out in the wash."
He's long said that Greene County and its suburbs can't be alone in hunkering down because CoxHealth and Mercy hospitals serve wide swaths of southwest Missouri. If other counties in their service area don't have the same restrictions, he said, "it really defeats the purpose of flattening the curve."
As of Friday evening, Greene County neighbors Polk, Dallas and Lawrence counties were without stay-at-home orders, as were most others in southwest and southern Missouri.
Those concerns didn't appear to register politically, though.
Democrats who criticized the governor when he resisted the idea of a stay-at-home order appeared satisfied by the new order, at least initially.
"I am thankful for Governor Parson's decision to impose a statewide stay-at-home order," House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, said in a statement. "This decision is necessary, and if it had been done sooner fewer Missourians would be at risk."
State Auditor Nicole Galloway, who is running for governor against Parson this year, issued a similar statement posted on Twitter.
"While I certainly wish it had been issued earlier, a statewide stay-at-home order is the right decision," she said.
Dan Ponder, a political science professor at Drury University, said Parson appeared to have gotten everything he wanted, holding fast to his hands-off approach that allows for different policies for urban and rural areas while appeasing critics.
"He appeared to speak very passionately, very authoritatively, but in the end, this may be much ado about very little," Ponder said. "On the other hand, this gives him political cover to say ‘I issued an order,’ even if it doesn’t change anything in a lot of areas, and where it does, it only codifies what was already going on."
"It was very savvy," Ponder added.
The effect was temporary.
Twelve hours after this story was initially published, Quade, the House minority leader, issued a new statement.
"The order is not at all what was advertised," she said. "It is so riddled with exemptions that it differs little from the weak and ineffective social distancing directive the administration previously issued."
"Until the Parson administration takes the strong action the situation requires, COVID-19 will continue to spread in Missouri at an alarming rate.”
Missouri had reported more than 2,100 confirmed cases of the virus and 19 deaths as of Friday afternoon.
Austin Huguelet is the News-Leader's politics reporter. Got something he should know? Have a question? Call him at 417-403-8096 or email him at email@example.com. You can also support local journalism at News-Leader.com/subscribe.