Missouri governor signs bill restricting future pandemic health orders, banning vaccine passports
JEFFERSON CITY — Local health departments in Missouri will have less freedom to issue restrictive public health orders and will be banned from requiring proof of vaccination under a bill signed into law by Gov. Mike Parson on Tuesday.
House Bill 271, in part a response to local masking ordinances and business restrictions in Missouri during the COVID-19 pandemic, caps the length of public health orders without the majority approval of local government. It also outlaws requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination to access public transportation or other services, or what have been commonly referred to as "vaccine passports."
Under the law, health orders issued during a state of emergency cannot last for more than 30 days within a 180 day period; orders issued outside of a state of emergency can last only 21 days within a 180 day period.
Local governments, such as city councils or commissions, can extend or end those health orders with a majority vote, or a two-thirds majority vote when the order is issued outside a state of emergency. Health officials must provide a report explaining the need for a 30-day extension before a vote is called.
"When this pandemic occurred, there was overreach on the local levels, and we've seen it in different parts of the state," Parson said Tuesday at the Capitol. "There's going to be consequences to that."
Parson's signing of the law comes after most local health orders in the state were relaxed or repealed altogether amid rising vaccination rates. Springfield City Council unanimously repealed the city's mask order last month. Parson told reporters Tuesday that despite those relaxed guidelines around the state, he believed the law was necessary as a "safeguard" for any future health emergencies.
Southwest Missouri has seen a recent surge in COVID-19 cases, especially among unvaccinated younger people, as virus variants continue to spread throughout the state. The region remains below the national average for vaccination rates, and CoxHealth infectious disease specialist Robin Trotman said last week if a person does not get vaccinated, they will eventually become sick with the virus. Parson said he didn't believe the new measures would hamper the efforts of health officials in communities where cases are rising.
When asked if he would consider a lottery or other incentives to increase vaccination rates in the state, Parson expressed caution, saying he would rather the state take a "balanced approach."
"I get the whole theory behind it, but as a government I think you have to be careful when you start doing things like that," he said.
Over the course of the pandemic, Parson took a largely hands-off approach to public health guidance in Missouri. He issued a social distancing order last year but stopping short of mandating masks, leaving it to communities to adopt their own policies. The statewide order, which included limits on gatherings and business capacities, expired in June 2020. A similar decentralized approach in future health emergencies would likely be made more complex under the new law.
Early versions of the law signed by Parson on Tuesday sparked vehement opposition by local health officials, including Clay Goddard, then director of the Springfield-Greene County Health Department, who said in a January hearing it could have severe consequences in future cases such as a local measles outbreak. Democrats also raised objections to the legislation.
"Saying one thing and doing another is pretty par for the course for this administration," the House Democratic Caucus said in a statement. "These blanket bans on what might be incredibly necessary public health measures in the future completely ignores local control and public safety."
Republicans added the public health restrictions to the bill, which began as a measure to expand a local government database, as a response to what they saw as government overreach during the pandemic. St. Louis County Executive Sam Page was frequently mentioned by lawmakers as their chief example.
This legislation, they argued, would restore personal liberties and remove roadblocks from businesses seeking to recoup profits — a sentiment that a number of small business owners shared throughout hearings.
The restrictions took effect immediately Tuesday following Parson's signing.
Galen Bacharier covers Missouri politics and government for the News-Leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, (573) 219-7440 or on Twitter @galenbacharier.