Hartmann: Missouri's Governor Finally Takes the Pandemic Seriously

Illustration of the COVID-19 virus.
Illustration of the COVID-19 virus. CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL

Faced with thousands of his citizens dying from the pandemic, and tens of thousands more infected, the governor of Missouri recently issued the following message:

“I hereby appeal to the people of the state to take every possible precaution against the spread of this disease. I urge, as far as possible, that all public gatherings be dispensed with, and upon the first appearance of the disease in any community the public schools be closed, and our citizens refrain from traveling.

“I request that the mayors of the cities and towns of the state and the local health authorities take such further steps in the matter as may be necessary to control the situation and prevent the spread of the disease, and I appeal for the hearty co-operation on the part of all our people with the authorities to the end that this menace may be brought under control.”

OK, so October 9, 1918, wasn’t all that recent. But the words of Missouri Gov. Frederick D. Gardner (a St. Louisan) happen to represent the most recent ones issued with a sense of passion, urgency and specificity by a person occupying the governor’s office during a raging global pandemic. As opposed to those of, say, Gov. Mike Parson.

Yes, Parson is literally a less enlightened man in 2020 than Gardner was in 1918.

This point was driven home just last week when Parson outdid himself by continuing to ignore emotional pleas of health officials in St. Louis and elsewhere in Missouri to join 37 other states by ordering a statewide mask mandate. Cases of COVID-19 and hospitalizations have exploded in recent weeks in the state — as in so many others — but Parson refuses to put public health and welfare ahead of his political philosophy, such that it is.

“The emphasis that are put on by some media outlets is like I am opposed to wearing a mask. I have never been opposed to that,” Parson said. “What I am opposed of is mandates from this position to the people of this state. People on the local level should have a voice.”

While it’s perhaps encouraging that Parson has discovered the importance of local autonomy for cities like St. Louis — unless, of course, we’re talking about a Black prosecutor’s approach to combating crime — the timing of his ongoing obstinance was jarring.

In the past week, three of Parson’s fellow conservative Republican governors — in Iowa, North Dakota and Utah, of all places — have, in light of skyrocketing COVID-19 statistics, completely contradicted their previous refusals to issue mask mandates. Or maybe it’s because some former reality TV star is leaving office. Or both.

Frankly, I’m sick of writing about this guy. Parson was elected by a landslide margin November 3, and he’ll presume that victory has given him a mandate to continue minimizing any state’s role in fighting COVID-19. His lone passion: addressing the “urgent” need to indemnify businesses from negligence on their part during the pandemic.

Still, that’s not what prompted me to break my promise to myself to pretend Parson had become invisible. No, it was the pitiful choice of words when Parsons had the unmitigated audacity to say hospital capacity was “becoming a problem.”

Becoming a problem??

After eight months of front-line workers in metropolitan and rural hospitals — doctors, nurses, technicians, support staff, you name it — literally working around the clock, risking their lives and their mental health, fighting this heroic uphill battle against a vicious and unforgiving virus, Parson had the tin-eared insensitivity to say the bursting capacity of understaffed medical institutions was “becoming a problem.”

I’m sorry. That’s a bridge too far. That’s not a gaffe. That’s an indication that this man simply isn’t up to serving as chief executive of a state of more than six million people. I get that he won the job fair and square. But that doesn’t make this OK. Even when Parson had reluctantly issued a “stay at home order” April 3 — actually a mild suggestion with enough loopholes to drive a pickup through — the virus wasn’t on Parson’s radar to the extent it was on Gardner’s a century earlier. And there was no radar in 1918.

Gardner also didn’t have the benefit of radio and TV, much less the vast reaches of the digital age, to have a fuller grasp of a governor’s role in a pandemic than Parson does. He spoke of curtailing gatherings, closing schools and reducing travel, and he used phrases such as “hearty cooperation” and “menace” that would never fall from Parson’s lips.

Gardner cited the advice of health-care officials — the U.S. surgeon general and Missouri’s Board of Health — in making his pronouncements. His health advisers apparently were more in touch with reality than the ones ostensibly serving Parson a century later.

For context as to how extraordinary that is, consider that those times were primitive enough that a product called Radithor went on the market in 1918 purporting to contain radioactive water as a cure-all. Its owner died fourteen years later when his jaw fell off, and he was buried in a lead-lined coffin (and his remains were still radioactive when exhumed 30 years later). It was their equivalent of treating COVID with Clorox injections. Also, there was this: In that same year, the largest-ever gathering of doctors convened in Chicago to discuss responding to the ravages of the pandemic. One of the topics was the wearing of masks, as had been ever-so-briefly mandated in San Francisco. Their conclusion: Mask-wearing to prevent getting or spreading the flu was “absurd and useless.”

We’ve evolved — so to speak — from a culture in which doctors thought people were ridiculous for wearing masks to one in which people (like Parson) think doctors are ridiculous for begging them to do so. We were smarter with far less information in the early 20th century.

So Gardner and Parson might have shared a similar view of the irrelevance of those “dang” masks. On the bright side, we have found the medical source informing Parson and Dr. “Beam Me Up Scotty” Atlas with regard to COVID-19 strategies.

But the bottom line is this: Missouri has a come a long way in the past century from the days of Governor Frederick Gardner trying to battle a raging pandemic with limited tools.

The problem for now, at least, is that the movement is headed in the wrong direction.

Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at [email protected] or catch him on Donnybrook at 7 p.m. on Thursdays on the Nine Network and 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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