There’s a particular spot in Jefferson City, Missouri, the state capital, where you can walk a few yards and pass through three different sets of masking rules. Struggling against the heavy wooden doors of the state-supreme-court building and stepping through, you leave the zone of the city and county recommendations—mask when you can’t keep distance—and enter a space where masks are required by order of the court. From there, you can peer through a glass door into a government office, a parallel pandemic universe where no one can tell you what to put on your face—and where trying to do so is a form of government overreach and social control.
This is the fiefdom of Eric Schmitt, the Missouri attorney general and Republican U.S. Senate candidate, reported The Atlantic. Schmitt has routinely snagged national headlines throughout the pandemic for his habit of suing people, most recently over masks. He is certainly not the only or best-known state official with bigger political ambitions battling public-health mandates in the name of personal freedom. Florida has Ron DeSantis, Texas has Greg Abbott—both governors wielding executive orders and fueling presidential speculation. Missouri does not have such a governor. Instead it has Schmitt, an ambitious attorney general wielding lawsuits.
He started by suing the People’s Republic of China for unleashing the pandemic through “an appalling campaign of deceit, concealment, misfeasance, and inaction.” Then it was a Missouri business that he accused of wildly overcharging for masks. Lately, Schmitt has turned his powers of litigation against attempted COVID-19 mitigation that he deems unnecessary and harmful. His latest salvo, filed in late August, is a lawsuit targeting mask mandates in Missouri public-school districts; this month he promised still more lawsuits over the Biden administration’s new vaccine mandates.
Meanwhile, within the very office that generates these lawsuits, young staffers politely don masks to step into public areas where signs have proliferated to warn Schmitt people that they’re entering court territory. Here, a bitter statewide fight over masks plays out as a passive-aggressive workplace drama. Here, too, the contradictions offer a fitting backdrop for Schmitt’s evolution from a personable, aisle-crossing state legislator who once voted for a vaccine mandate to a firebrand partisan primary candidate who now says that public-health mandates show only that “the Left is obsessed with power & control.”
Schmitt has placed himself at the center of the COVID wars in a state where vaccinations fall stubbornly below the national average and where, earlier in the summer, the Delta variant ignited its first major outbreak in the United States. In Missouri as elsewhere, the mask-mandate fight is overshadowing the promotion of vaccines—which, as Schmitt himself has noted in lawsuits, remain the best way to combat the pandemic. He rarely advertises this. And although some of his Republican primary rivals encourage vaccination while emphasizing personal choice, Schmitt has appeared hostile even to admitting being vaccinated himself. (He is.) His story, along with the ways in which his ambition has drawn him into partisan combat in a public-health culture war, is a vivid demonstration of how national politics has poisoned local debates, pitting people against one another instead of against COVID-19, even as state and local governments remain the front line of pandemic response.
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