CLAYTON — A judge on Friday rejected a bid by the Missouri Restaurant Association and dozens of restaurants in St. Louis County to stop a ban on indoor dining.
Associate Circuit Judge John R. Lasater denied their request to cancel the move mandated by county Executive Sam Page to stem the rising tide of COVID-19 cases.
"I believe the public interest is best served right now by denying this restraining order," Lasater said during a hearing held remotely, adding that the goal of the indoor-dining prohibition is "trying to protect the public."
No date was set Friday for any further action on the issue.
The state restaurant group joined about 40 restaurant owners in filing a lawsuit Wednesday that challenged the right of county officials to enact such a ban, which was imposed a day earlier.
Tim Belz, an attorney for the restaurants, said during the hearing that the county's move was "an enormous threat and it's unconstitutional."
Belz argued that while the acting county health director, Emily Doucette, has the legal power to issue health orders, those powers are in specific cases or against specific businesses.
"But (state and county law) does not talk about her attacking an entire industry," Belz said.
James N. Foster, another attorney for the plaintiffs, said county officials have "presented no evidence that anyone got COVID-19 from any restaurant in St. Louis County."
An attorney for the county, Neal Perryman, countered that Doucette has "broad authority" through state law and county ordinances to enact such measures.
Calling the coronavirus "a nightmare" for most people, Perryman argued that courts have long maintained that some of the public's legal rights "must yield during a public health crisis."
"And we're going to sit here at a Zoom meeting on a Friday afternoon and pretend we don't have a problem?" Perryman said.
The legal battle comes as the St. Louis area, as well as Missouri and Illinois, all continued on Friday to report record-breaking COVID-19 hospitalization totals.
Along with the state restaurant association, which represents more than 1,000 establishments statewide, the plaintiffs' roster includes the owners of Circle 7 Ranch, Syberg’s Family Restaurants, The Shack Restaurant Group, Tucker’s, Mike Duffy’s Pub & Grill, Mia Sorella, 3 Kings, Corner Pub & Grill, Harpo’s, Fitz’s South County, Massa’s, Satchmo’s Bar & Grill and Bartolino’s South.
Belz told the court there are more than 2,100 restaurants and bars in St. Louis County, employing more than 46,000 people.
The lawsuit contends that Page and Doucette acted improperly by not first having the health order approved by the County Council, a move that also allowed Page and Doucette to avoid giving public notice of a meeting or letting the public comment on the order.
But Perryman said state laws and county ordinances make clear that they had the right "to close any public or private place of assembly."
In defending his order earlier this week, Page said the county would pursue “all of our legal options” to stop restaurants that were not abiding by restrictions.
The county earlier this year sent cease-and-desist letters to dozens of businesses that remained open during a stay-at-home order, and successfully sued to shut down two fitness centers that openly defied the order.
Chris King, a spokesman for St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell, said Wednesday that the office had not yet received complaints of anyone violating Page's most recent order. Violations would be reviewed case by case, he said.