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MO Republican wants Jackson County to pay back fines for COVID-19 mask mandate violations

Jackson County and other health departments within the county may be required to repay fines issued to businesses for failing to comply with COVID-19 regulations if a bill passes the Missouri General Assembly.

The bill, sponsored by Missouri State Representative Chris Sander, a Lone Jack Republican, was heard in the House Emerging Issues Committee Wednesday afternoon.

The bill targets Jackson County because when the county’s mask mandate was in effect, businesses found to be in violation of the order could receive a ticket and even be temporarily closed. The bill also applies to Kansas City and Independence, both of which have their own health departments.

The health departments of Kansas City and Independence did not immediately respond to how much they collected in potential fines issued.

“It would be similar to the trial if a police officer stopped you, wrote you a ticket and collected a ticket, all with no judge, no jury, and nobody knows where the police officer would have the money,” Sander said.

The county mandate required people to wear a mask within any public space, regardless of vaccination status. It applied to areas of the county outside of Kansas City and Independence because those cities have their own health departments.

A total of $2,275 was raised from 10 tickets paid for to the county, Marshanna Smith, a spokeswoman for the Jackson County Executive’s office, told The Star in an email. A total of 35 public health violations were filed, and 21 were filed by a prosecutor. Four outstanding warrants are still outstanding, Smith said.

Sander testified at the hearing that he asked the county about how much money was raised, but the county never gave him the numbers he gave The Star.

Rep. Dave Hinman, a Republican from O’Fallon, said at the hearing that it would be concerning if the county purposely withheld information about the fines it collects.

The execution of the health ordinance was based on the complaints presented. After receiving a complaint, the county’s Environmental Health Division visited the businesses and issued a warning or fine only if they witnessed the violation.

Smith said he issued a warning and provided instructions on how to correct the violation before a ticket was issued.

“I don’t know if it’s $1,000 or a million dollars, but I would like to give it back to the companies that had to pay it because the way it was done is unconstitutional,” Sander said.

Amanda Wohletz, the owner of Rae’s Cafe, testified at the hearing about her experience facing fines and citations for violating the mask mandate in 2021.

“It cost me everything I own as a small business owner. It cost me every dollar. I’m in business debt now,” Wohletz said.

Wohletz’s attorney, Melinda Clark-Sann, said Wohletz ultimately paid a $500 fine issued because he was operating his restaurant without a permit because it was revoked after he defied the mask mandate. All fines and citations from the Jackson County Environmental Health Department related to warrant violations were dismissed by a prosecutor, Clark-Sann said.

Sander said that as the bill’s language currently stands, the bill won’t reimburse Wohletz’s fine for operating without a permit, but she hopes to change the language to help more people like her who have faced city fines. Currently the bill only applies to traffic tickets issued by county and local health departments, not city fines, Sander said.

The mandate was reissued in early August 2021 and was passed by the Jackson County Legislature every 30 days, as required, until it decided to rescind the mandate in early November 2021. The first mask mandate of the county started in July 2020.

A few weeks after the 2021 mandate was revoked in Jackson County, a decision was made by the Cole County Circuit Court, preventing local health officials from issuing health orders to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. The decision came from Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green, who ruled the local health orders were unconstitutional. He also forbade health departments from setting new rules.

Sander tabled the same bill in the last session, but it never made it out of the House. The tax memo for last year’s bill said that if the legislation were passed, it could have a negative tax impact on Kansas City, but the exact amount of the money was not listed.

The tax memo for the version of the bill filed this year says there would be no anticipated tax impact on Kansas City and a negative impact on Jackson County was assumed, but said the amount of money is unknown because the county did not respond to requests for input.

Rep. Maggie Nurrenbern, a Democrat from Kansas City, said she wasn’t surprised to see Sander table the legislation because he’s known to be against COVID-19 regulations.

“He certainly made it known during last year’s budget process that he has a personal vendetta against organizations and groups that were really working hard to mitigate the effects of COVID, whether through mask mandates or other provisions,” Nurrenbern said.

Nurrenbern said Sander strongly supported an amendment last year that would ban funds going to any general admissions event that required attendees to be tested for COVID-19 or get their COVID-19 vaccination.

“I find it just frustrating that here, in the year 2023, we continue to waste our time in the general assembly chasing entities that were trying to keep people alive in 2020,” Nurrenbern said.

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