COVID-19 Shows Missouri How Low It Can Go

Gov. Parson's stay-at-home order isn't really that.
Gov. Parson's stay-at-home order isn't really that. VIA MISSOURI GOVERNOR'S OFFICE
Watching Missouri Gov. Mike Parson undergo a political root canal last Friday was almost as painful for rational people as it must have been for him.

The governor read his “stay-at-home” statement — mislabeled and misreported as an “order” — with the glee of a hostage at gunpoint, which in a sense he was. Parson’s reluctance to regard COVID-19 as an actual pandemic is no secret, and he only quasi-caved after a torrent of pleas and criticism from health care groups (our heroes), business leaders, politicians and media.

The governor needed to get a monkey off his back while placating some less-evolved political simians to his far right. He abided no questions at his “news conference” with good reason.

But here’s the bottom line, Missouri: We don’t have a statewide stay-at-home in force here. Not even close. Not even after all those headlines and news accounts proclaimed, “Parson finally issues stay-at-home order.”

However pure his intentions, Parson issued nothing more than a strong suggestion to the 65 or so counties that had no official order in place. They remain governed by less stringent guidelines than those in St. Louis city and county and all other large population centers in the state. Lots of places that would be shuttered here have “open for business” signs dotted throughout rural areas. All enforcement is left to localities with no state-enforcement teeth whatsoever.

The first hint of this lameness was its puzzling lack of urgency: Parson announced at 5 p.m. Friday an “order’ that would not even take effect until 51 hours later, at 12:01 a.m. Monday. If that delay wasn’t a WTF moment, I don’t know what qualifies. Was this a pandemic or a picnic? Was the governor concerned that he might ruin the virus’ weekend by not giving it advance notice?

Oh, and there was this: The “order” only lasts eighteen days and actually expires six days before the aspirational end-of-April “guidance” announced by Donald Trump, the same guy who on February 27 proclaimed, “One day it’s like a miracle. It will disappear.” In the COVID-19 world, if you’re six days short of that genius, you’re a few fries short of a Happy Meal.

Shutting down means shutting down. Nobody likes this, but the concept is pretty straightforward: Everyone stays home, and the virus doesn’t have a place to spread. The more exceptions you make, the harder it is to bend the curve and flatten it.

Every inadvertent encounter with someone unknowingly having the virus can affect dozens, hundreds or thousands of people, exponentially, because it’s highly contagious and has no cure. It’s not “like viruses we’ve had before,” something the governor stated as recently as March 19. It’s a health care emergency.

Make no mistake about it: Missourians do retain more freedom than most Americans. Don’t take my word for it. Check out the website of the state Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS), where the rules are spelled out. Here’s one eye-opening excerpt from the FAQ section:

“Do work places that do not qualify as ‘essential’ businesses have to close?

“No. Businesses that are not covered by (federal) guidance discussed in the Order may remain open but must comply with the social gathering and social distance requirements of the Order. This means that no more than 10 individuals can occupy a single space, this includes both employees and customers … Businesses are also encouraged to allow individuals, where feasible, to work from home to achieve optimum isolation.

“Businesses can seek a waiver of the social gathering requirements from the Director of the Department of Economic Development.

At the risk of seeming unduly cynical, what possible case of bureaucratic dementia would possess a state health department to invite non-essential business to stay open and to invite any business to seek social-gathering waivers during the worst pandemic in human history? Allowing employees to stay at home is “encouraged?”

I’ll say this for DHHS: No freedom-loving business or virus should ever question its gentle spirit. Consider this reader-friendly translation of the state’s occupancy code in this time of shutdown:

“A 40,000 square foot grocery store would be able to have 133 customers in the store at any one time. An 8,000 square foot retail store would be able to have 66 customers in the store at any one time.”

The only distancing going on statewide in Missouri is between its government and the human brain. Are we really celebrating that the 134th customer is going to have to cool his boots outside of the Walmart for a hot minute?

Missouri still has 87 of its 91 state parks open, as opposed to Illinois, which has zero. To be fair, lots of states have kept parks open, and Missouri has closed its campgrounds on its sites. Still, outdoor enthusiasts have been streaming across the Missouri border to enjoy the Show-Me state’s natural splendor, a bizarre reversal of the customary migration of Missourians seeking gambling, topless dancing and recreational pot in Illinois.Throw in the number of people who might travel from other states to enjoy their freedom to patronize non-essential services, and one fears Missouri might embrace pandemic tourism. Hopefully, the “We’ve Got Freedom That Your State Doesn’t” campaign stays on the shelf.

All snark aside, this isn’t cool. As I said in this space just a week ago, we don’t have time for any nonsense about an urban-rural divide, not on this one.

The nurses and doctors in rural Missouri are just as wonderful and heroic and under-protected as the ones here in the St. Louis area. The people in rural Missouri are just as important and decent and caring and good-hearted and intelligent as the people in the metropolitan areas. We have some differences, yes, but no one’s better than anyone else. No one matters more or less than anyone else.

Missourians need to come together as one state — one people — resolved to work as one to bend the curve of COVID-19 and flatten it. But that’s only happening if there’s a sense of connectivity, of purpose and of urgency that’s sorely lacking today.

We need leadership now, and it’s just not there. We need unity now, and it’s just not there.

There can be no denying that state government is broken in Missouri. But it’s one thing to have a philosophical aversion to taxation and governance and make the Faustian bargain of low revenues for bottom-of-the-barrel spending for education and patrolmen and social services and all the rest. Not being able to answer the bell for a pandemic is something else again.

Editor's note: The original version of this column was altered after new statistics were released overnight.

Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at [email protected] or catch him on St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).

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