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Missouri Governor Resists Calls for Stay-at-Home Order

Sebastián Martínez Valdivia
Side Effects Public Media
Missouri Governor Mike Parson has resisted growing calls to issue state-wide orders in response to COVID-19.

The Broadway Diner is empty. The ‘50s style restaurant has been a fixture of downtown Columbia, for decades and gets a lot of customers from the University of Missouri. These days, the only sounds keeping owner Dave Johnson company are from the building’s noisy ventilation system. “I was here when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center, and I thought that was horrible, but it’s nothing like this." 

After local colleges and the public school system shut down, Johnson announced that he would feed students and community members for free. A few days later, the city ordered an end to dine-in restaurant service.

Just half an hour away and a county over, the dining room of the Palace Restaurant in Boonville is still open.

"We sanitize everything," says owner George Xifridis, who bought the restaurant 35 years ago after emigrating from Greece. He says business started to slow down a week ago and now it’s down to a trickle.

“I think they are scared," Xifridis says. "They will call maybe for to-go or curbside pick-up but I imagine they’re afraid to come in." 

He understands why people are scared, and says he has concerns about the virus himself. But if he closes, he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to re-open.

Xifridis can still offer dine-in eating because of the way Missouri is handling the health crisis. Some cities have ordered an end to dine-in service at restaurants. But there’s no statewide shutdown order in effect, just a directive that Missourians avoid eating there.

Credit Sebastian Martinez Valdivia / Side Effects Public Media
Side Effects Public Media
The Broadway Diner in Columbia, Missouri sits empty, weeks after most of its college student patrons went home for the semester.

“At the end of the day, it is going to be personal responsibility that’s going to be a part of the future of what we’re doing to fight the coronavirus,” Gov. Mike Parson said at a recent press conference. 

“Personal responsibility,” has been a core part of the messaging from Parson, a Republican.

At a recent news conference, he downplayed fears about the virus: “This is like viruses we’ve dealt with before, it’s going to take us some time to be able to treat that virus, to come up with a vaccine at some point. But if people will follow simple instructions, they can sure slow the process down of the COVID-19."

Parson says decisions about closing schools or restricting bars and restaurants have to happen on the local level.

He has emphasized the differences between rural and urban Missouri, and one of his big sticking points has been businesses. He recently directed state agencies to mandate social distancing policies, like limiting public gatherings to 10 people or fewer. He also suspended regulations on restaurants selling unprepared foods, to ease the burden on grocery stores.

Brian Houston is the chair of the University of Missouri’s communication department, and his research focuses on disasters. He says leaders should aim for simple and specific instructions during a crisis.

But Houston also says leaders must balance their words. They have to calm the public’s fears, while making it clear the danger should be taken seriously.

“It really is a tough situation from a communication perspective, but that is one of the reasons why we need the simplest, clearest communication and policies possible," Houston explained.

Houston says the Missouri governor’s orders can be confusing because they leave decisions in the hands of the public.
Illinois’ Democratic governor, J.B. Pritzker was the first of Missouri’s neighboring states to issue a shelter-in-place order to prevent community spread. Indiana’s Republican Governor, Eric Holcomb, recently announced a similar order.

Parson says each state has to make its own decisions. "The effects that’ll have on everyday people are dramatic. That means businesses will close, people will lose their jobs, the economy will be in worse shape than ever."

Meanwhile, Columbia and the St. Louis and Kansas City metro areas are under stay-at-home orders. Business leaders, doctors and — recently — some mayors have called for uniform rules for the state. As the number of COVID-19 cases in MIssouri continues to grow, so too does pressure on the governor to take action.

This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.

Sebastián Martínez Valdivia is a health reporter and documentary filmmaker who focuses on access to care in rural and immigrant communities.