The boarded-up storefront of Rae’s Cafe in Blue Springs, Missouri, does not look much like a Covid-19 battleground – but it has become a cause célèbre of the anti-masking movement since owner Amanda Wohletz began a campaign in July to defy local Jackson county mask mandates imposed after Delta variant infections surged.
Despite warnings, citations, the revocation of a food permit and a county health department’s order to close her doors, Wohletz persisted, claiming in court that the mandate ordering everyone five and up is required to wear a face covering when visiting indoor public spaces was “unconstitutionally created” and efforts to enforce it were “unlawful, nonsensical”.
Now the restaurant is shuttered. In un 23 September ruling, a county judge rejected Wohletz’s argument of medical exemptions and that the restaurant could skirt the mandate by operating as a private club. The judge also ordered Rae’s to cease operations until it obtained a valid food permit.
Welcome to Missouri’s Covid culture wars.
This Republican-run midwestern state was hit hard and early by the pandemic, and again with the Delta wave of a more infectious variant. Tens of thousands of people have become infected.
Even though rates are now going down again as the Delta wave recedes, the state’s population is still only 48.18% fully vaccinated. With winter coming and new variants looming, health officials are now concerned that the culture wars that have roiled Missouri – and other parts of America – will leave the state vulnerable again when a next wave strikes.
In the heat of the sometimes bizarre battle over masks, mandates and vaccines, many observers worry that Missourians’ personal convictions, often fed by misinformation and nourished by religious conviction, are being harvested for political gain.
At the top of the list is Missouri’s attorney general, Eric Schmitt, a Republican who is running for US Senate.
Schmitt has sued China, claiming “irreparable damage to countries across the globe, causing sickness, Morte, economic disruption, and human suffering” caused by Covid-19 and, more recently, initiated a class-action lawsuit against local school districts throughout Missouri, seeking to prevent them from enacting mask policies.
“Forcing children to wear masks in school all day long flies in the face of science, and could hinder crucial development by eliminating facial cues and expressions,” Schmitt said last month.
Martedì, a judge threw out Schmitt’s request to block public schools in Boone county, which includes the city of Columbia, and to expand the action to sue every school district in the state that has a mask requirement.
Health officials say that the twists and turns in their battle against Covid-19 are being profoundly complicated by political interpretations and posturing.
St Louis county’s director of public health, Dr Faisal Khan, has been at war over mask mandates with Schmitt, who has repeatedly challenged their legality and enforceability with the state’s largest city.
“It’s always a bad idea to try to tie the hands of public health,” Khan told the Guardian. “Our focus is on protecting people and my appeal is to not politicize a public health crisis. This is a respiratory infection, nothing more, and has nothing to do with personal freedoms or notions of what constitutes tyrannical behavior of curbing of individual rights.”
At a July council meeting, Khan was reportedly mobbed by anti-maskers and subjected to treatment he later described in a letter of complaint as “racist, xenophobic and threatening”.
“The lingering feeling I have is of sadness at how a public health crisis has been exploited by unscrupulous individuals across the country at every level, and given a political flavoring," Egli ha detto. “It’s detrimental to our universal cause which is to fight the pandemic. The ignorance of individuals that chose politics over science will reveal itself.”
Opposition to masking, in individual and in official capacities, is a highly emotive issue. It’s also one that divides country from city, and urban district from district, business from business.
”Anti-mask businesses don’t say anything, and they’re not going to do anything,” said Arthur, an IT consultant, who declined be fully identified on the basis that any statement on the issues that might be read politically. “Pro-maskers are more aggressive, seeking argument and enforcement.”
But despite mask mandates, many businesses have directed employees not to confront non-mask-wearing customers.
The consequences, to some, are clear. “So many kids are catching it and can’t go to school,” said Tim Agnew, waiting for a bus in Forest Park. “Wearing a mask doesn’t bother me, but there’s also a lot of people who aren’t vaccinated and say it [ha] all kinds of chemicals in it.”
Outside of Rae’s Cafe, Wohletz supporter Merle Miller was selling electric ionizers that, he claimed, could kill airborne viruses.
“I feel like this whole Covid thing has become politicized. We used to elect people to help us," Egli ha detto. Asked if political mask battles would detract from another variant spike, Miller said “possibly” before launching into a sales pitch and a political-religious line of debate centered on the US being founded on principles of God.
“When all this shit gets kicked up, I feel like: God, just please take me home. I’m ready to meet Jesus.”
Leota Guevara, a server at a local Waffle House, said Wohletz had pushed her anti-government stance too far. “She liked the attention, and got a lot of support, but then she lost her business over it. I don’t see how that could be worth it. Not only that, her employees lost their jobs.”
But at Red’s Gas, 100 miles west and deep in Missouri’s farming country, Becky Craven expressed a different line of thought, and her anti-authority beliefs remained strong.
People in the cities, Craven said, just wanted to pull wool over their eyes and believe that government is looking out for them. “They’re all sheep. They want to believe that the government is looking out for them. The truth is, no one is looking out for them any more and it’s all politics.”
Next week, amid anti-mask legal actions across the state, St Louis will hold a council hearing on accepting any new or repeat indoor mask mandates.
“We understand Covid fatigue and that people are frustrated by the never-ending barrage of restrictions,” Dr Khan said. “But public health is not the enemy, the virus is, and our strategy is based on the changing dynamics of the battlefield. Tying this up in lawsuits, frivolous as they are, will only hinder our fight because have no idea what this pandemic with throw at us three months from now or one month from now.”