Acting Director of Public Health Dr. Faisal Khan in July, 2021. (Source: Jeffrey Bricker)

Now that a Circuit Judge has ruled against an indoor mask mandate issued in July by the St. Louis County Department of Public Health, County Executive Dr. Sam Page wants the County Council to draft a new ordinance on face masks. But the council isn’t ready to oblige.

A majority of the council put a hold on any new mask mandates during the council’s regular meeting on September 21. Before any action is taken, council members want to speak directly with embattled Acting County Health Director Dr. Faisal Khan.

Prior to the meeting, Khan sent a letter to the council requesting the new mask mandate, which is supported by Page, citing a forecast for an “uptick” in COVID-19 cases as the seasons change.

“The most important mitigation measure, the wearing of face coverings indoors, is critical as we head into the cooler season where more residents will be spending time indoors and as we continue to encourage St. Louis County residents to vaccinate,” Khan wrote.

But Khan has a strained relationship with some council members after his last appearance at a public meeting caused a stir from a large crowd gathered in the audience.

Khan alleged in a letter to council chair Rita Heard Days (D-District 1) that he was verbally assaulted and physically accosted by some members of the public both during and after his testimony to the council. A review by the council seemed to contradict Khan’s allegations. The review including security footage from inside the building and testimony from a law enforcement officer who escorted Khan from the council chambers. Moreover, Khan gave an obscene gesture to the crowd as he left, an action he said was provoked and has since been reprimanded by Page.

Also in his first letter to the council, Khan singled out council member Tim Fitch (R-District 5) for his “dog whistle” questions that Khan said focused on his ethnicity and background. Fitch rebuffed those claims and contended that he merely was questioning the acting health director’s professional qualifications. Either way, there is no love lost between the two, and Khan may find it difficult to persuade a majority of the council to back his request for a mask mandate.

In other business that same evening, the council passed a resolution calling for all 911 dispatchers in St. Louis County to be designated as “first responders.” While the resolution is non-binding and further legislation would need to be passed to change the designation, Fitch said the move was not merely symbolic.

“They are truly the first, first responders. That’s how I’ve always seen those professionals (at the 911 center),” Fitch said. ” … NextGen 911 is going to come after the first of the year … when you call 911 over your mobile phone, those individuals answer it over the phone lines. NextGen will let you send pictures into them. You can FaceTime a 911 dispatcher. That sounds like a good thing and in most cases it is. But there are some horrible things that dispatchers are going to have to see now and not just hear about.”

Fitch said changing the classification of 911 dispatchers to “first responders” will allow for additional benefits and employee services including potential PTSD care as needed.

The bill was initially sponsored by council member Kelli Dunaway (D-District 2) who recently visited the Dispatch Center along with fellow council member Lisa Clancy (D-District 5). Following the discussion, all members of the council became co-sponsors of the resolution. The next step will be for the state legislature to take up the issue in a future session and/or for the council to pass an ordinance supporting the change.