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Parson will lift Missouri's COVID-19 restrictions next week. Local orders still in place

Kansas City Star logoKansas City Star 6 days ago By Matthew Kelly And Jason Hancock, The Kansas City Star

JEFFERSON CITY -- Missouri Gov. Mike Parson announced Thursday that he will allow the state's social distancing order to expire next week, although local governments will still be allowed to enact their own policies to combat the spread of COVID-19.

"At some point, government has to get out of the way and let people live their lives and regulate their own selves," Parson said at a press briefing. "We are at that time in the state of Missouri.

"Missouri," he added, "will be fully open for business."

He said the pillars of reopening -- increased coronavirus testing, improved supplies of personal protective equipment and hospital capacity -- all indicate that the state is "fully ready" to enter the next phase of reopening.

"The health and safety of all Missourians will always be our number one priority, but as I have said many times, COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on our economy," Parson said.

The announcement came as Missouri reported 203 new cases on Thursday, bringing the total to 15,390. The state also reported 12 new deaths, raising the total to 860.

Parson cautioned that "the virus is still out there."

"It is up to us to take personal responsibility for our own actions," he said.

Social distancing order aside, Parson said he will extend Missouri's state of emergency through Dec. 30 so that the state can continue to rely on federal CARES Act funding.

He also plans to extend executive orders keeping the National Guard mobilized, suspending more than 530 state regulations on industries, allowing the sale of unprepared restaurant food as groceries, and waiving requirements for a person to be physically present in front of a notary public.

Local control

The practical impact of Parson's decision will likely be somewhat muted given recent disagreement over how it was to be enforced.

Parson's order lifted a ban on large gatherings and allowed most businesses to reopen as long as they adhered to certain guidelines, such as maintaining six feet of space between individuals. It established capacity limits for some businesses, but social distancing guidelines did not apply to people in jobs that require closer contact, such as those in barber and cosmetology shops, hair salons and tattoo parlors.

After videos of crowds ignoring Parson's social distancing order at the Lake of the Ozarks over Memorial Day weekend emerged, Parson said repeatedly that enforcement of his order is up to local officials.

But local officials in the lake area pushed back, arguing that the state needed to enforce the governor's order.

Parson ultimately returned to his longstanding position that combating COVID-19 was more about personal responsibility than government intervention, conceding that his social distancing order was "a recommendation for people to follow" and not something he expected the state to strictly enforce.

"How much will this change people's day-to-day?" said Chris Prener, a sociologist at Saint Louis University who has closely tracked state data on the virus. "I'm not sure it will, given how kind of loose things have been to this point."

Rob Dixon, director of the Missouri Department of Economic Development, said that 82% of businesses his department has connected with have implemented screening and other health procedures for their employees, and that 78% have a plan in place in the event of an outbreak.

In Kansas City, restrictions on businesses were relaxed last month by Mayor Quinton Lucas. They were allowed to serve up to 50 percent of capacity and limits on the size of outdoor gatherings were lifted.

In doing so, however, Lucas stressed social distancing would still be required -- and that the city would boost enforcement of the rules to ensure they were being followed.

The area encompassing Kansas City and Jackson, Clay and Platte counties in Missouri and Johnson and Wyandotte counties in Kansas added 113 new cases on Thursday.

Prener said that testing in Missouri has certainly increased -- by 140 percent over the end of April. In the last seven days, Prener said, the state has averaged around 6,500 tests a day.

But since the beginning of June, Prener said, the rate of positive test results has grown.

On June 3, Prener said state data showed a seven-day average of positive tests at 2.86 percent. Over the last seven days, the average is 3.58 percent.

Prener said that while that figure is lower than other states, "the trajectory is part of what I think is really important. Our percent positives have been slowly ticking upward."

He also questions the state's figures on hospitalization rates.

According to state data, hospitalizations in Missouri peaked at just under 1,000 in early May. So far this month, Missourians hospitalized for COVID-19 have hovered around 600.

But Prener said that the number of hospitals that are included in that data change every day.

"It's impossible to disentangle whether the hospitalizations have dropped because there are few patients," he said, "or because the number of hospitals reporting has changed."

Second wave?

Since the pandemic iswept the U.S. starting early this year, almost 2 million people have been confirmed infected and more than 110,000 have died.

COVID-19 cases are on the rise in 21 states, according to data compiled by The New York Times.

A month into its reopening, Florida this week reported more positive cases than any seven-day period this year. Texas, where some businesses reopened on May 1, is now reporting its highest rate of hospitalization to date.

"What we know is that if you reopen, you will get more cases," said Julie Swann, head of North Carolina State University's Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, previously worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Masks and social distancing can help keep the spread manageable, she said, but further reopening will inevitably correspond with a surge in infection.

Swann said a state's hospital surge capacity, ability to effectively test and trace, and volume of masks and other PPE all factor into whether or not it's responsible to further reopen.

"One real challenge is that COVID is not going to go away until either there's a vaccine or a sufficient number of people in the population have had it and recovered from it," Swann said.

She said we're "nowhere near close" to reaching herd immunity and a vaccine won't be available until at least next year.

"We can't stay closed and reach herd immunity, so then can we stay closed until we get a vaccine? Well, it's not clear that we can afford to do that either or that people would be willing to," Swann said.

"We need to do everything we can to give our systems what they need to be prepared to deal with the surge, and we need to give our communities what they need to reduce virus transmission."

Swann said most states have yet to see the worst of the virus, even as citizens are losing patience for social distancing measures.

"In most locations, they have not hit anywhere close to a peak yet," Swann said. "People talk about a second wave, but I think eventually, we'll realize that for some states, what we've had is a ripple -- not a real wave yet -- but the big wave is still coming."

Victory lap

Missouri Democrats immediately criticized Parson's announcement, accusing him of having "the nerve to take a victory lap."

"Parson's tone-deaf announcement was all about election-year politics -- and completely ignored the fact that under his watch, the coronavirus pandemic's spread across our state appears to be accelerating," said Missouri Democratic Party spokesperson Kevin Donohoe.

But the governor won praise from others, including the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which said Parson's previous order "played an important role in helping reduce the threat of COVID-19 and limiting the spread of the virus."

Dan Mehan, the chamber's CEO and president, said businesses must continue to follow best practices for the health and safety of their employees, customers and communities. But letting the statewide order expire was the right decision.

"Removing the statewide business restrictions, he said, "is a positive step forward that will allow more businesses to take proper precautions and get Missourians safely back to work."

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