Greene County Presiding Commissioner Bob Dixon conducted a phone interview with OI editor Jason Wert, where they spoke about the restrictions placed on the county due to COVID-19 and the Constitutional issues surrounding the actions.
OI: The measures you’ve put in place seem to be producing results.
Dixon: We actually really are and it is most encouraging and it’s a validation that earlier intervention produces faster results.
OI: There are parts of the community who have been very vocal in their criticism of the actions taken by the city and county. You obviously are not taking any of this lightly.
Dixon: (laugh) No kidding.
OI: What do you take into consideration when you’re looking at the restrictions you’ve put in place?
Dixon: Well, when this first really started to become an issue in Europe, Commissioner Bengsch, whose training is in this as an epidemiologist and who ran the Springfield-Greene County health department, told Commissioner Russell and me that this could be a natural pandemic.
He was very concerned and that’s when I sat up and took notice. I have a lot of respect for him, and like I said, this is is his training. He has decades of service in this area and has told stories of similar situations, perhaps not on this global scale, where he had to step in and take action.
OI: So county residents have basically had an expert on outbreaks in every meeting of the Commission.
Dixon: It has been a Godsend to Commissioner Russell and I to have Commissioner Bengsch still on the Commission at this time. No question about it.
OI: Let’s talk about essential businesses. How did you determine what businesses would be considered essential?
Dixon: When we realized that we had to act, we knew we had to act quickly if we wanted to bend the curve. If we had just waited until it was a real problem, it doesn’t have the effect, and we’re seeing that if you compare Greene, Christian, and Webster County’s numbers to the rest of the state. At one point it was a large chunk and now it’s less than a tenth of the total state numbers.
We looked at the guidance documents from Homeland Security as far as what they recommended. We also began looking at other metro areas and what actions they took so we didn’t reinvent the wheel.
There were some things added as exceptions that we did as well. We developed a very broad list of exemptions so that we could provide the most broad avenue possible to keep major infrastructure up and running. Keep the supply chain for food and other necessary items so people can do the basics.
You have to be very careful in a situation like this. It’s the first I’ve ever been involved in and I hope it’s the last. You don’t want to do something where you don’t have the basic infrastructure there for people to get by and through the pandemic and the stay at home orders.
We were very careful to have a broad list of exemptions which could be interpreted by a business owner or entity with guidance from their legal counsel to do what is right. And that is the key. So people could do what is right, what is safest at this time, rather than us dictating you can do this and you can do that.
OI: There are people on social media talking about the fact Walmart is open, but they can’t sell certain products inside their stores because some products are deemed non-essential. If a store is allowed to be open in general, why restrict what a store that is open can be allowed to sell?
Dixon: Let me answer that with another question. I had someone email the county and ask for a list of essential business names. First of all, there is no such list. There’s a reason for that. We never want to be in the position of picking winners and losers. Some would argue the essential business list is doing that, and they would be incorrect.
What we’re trying to do is a keep a minimum level of infrastructure running, supply chain running, people to be able to take care of the necessities. Be able to get food, gas, medications, and so forth. Have running water, sewage. The things for society to operate on a base level until this things get past us.
Now, we recognize that all retailers are different. There are some stores that sell essential products and non-essential products. So if you have a retailer who sells groceries, which is essential, but also sells other items, they’ve been very cooperative to say that “we’ll section off this area, and keep open the part that does the groceries and the pharmacy.”
I haven’t seen any heavy handedness by the City of Springfield or any other city in working with retailers. And retailers don’t want to get sick either. They don’t want to be flooded with customers and be exposed to this thing.
I’ll tell you, I’m very glad the Governor issued the statewide order because now we have consistency across the state. We now have limits on occupancy I’m sure that came at the behest of retail employers.
OI: Did the governor wait too long?
Dixon: I think the Governor had a lot to consider and I think they had a lot of different opinions presented. Missouri is a very diverse state.
I know in the rural areas it’s a little bit different. So I don’t question his decision but I am very grateful for it. I think it will prove to be wise in the long run. The numbers indicate there are more cases in rural counties than there would have been otherwise, but the last thing I want to do right now is criticize a good decision.
The people of Missouri, when they understand what could have been, and we may never will know, but when we see other states that have not done that, the appreciation for the governor’s decision will increase.
OI: There are citizens saying you don’t have the Constitutional right to do it. Explain why you feel you have the Constitutional basis for your actions.
Dixon: I am a firm believer in the Constitution and our founding documents that serve as a foundation for that Constitution. All of us as citizens have the same unalienable rights.
When folks tell me the government doesn’t the rights to do something, I tend to agree with them. Government doesn’t have a right, government has authority that has been granted to it.
If you read those documents and understand those documents, and it doesn’t always mean it agrees with your opinion or my opinion, I think it takes a great deal of education and understanding recognize and appreciate the courts who are authorized by that very document have over the years…have had to make decisions when there is a disagreement from two or more citizens as to what those words mean.
This is an ongoing thing. The result of those decisions, again, decisions authorized by courts established by that very document, there is a body of case law that we can turn to. Now, we can disagree with that case law, but according to the Constitution and the courts that it authorizes, that is the law until it’s changed.
I don’t agree with all of it. Neither does everyone else, but it is the law, and if we don’t agree on that we are not a society of law but a society of men.
OI: Just because you don’t like a law doesn’t mean it’s unconstitutional.
Dixon: That’s correct. For those who would like to say ‘well, it’s unconstitutional, therefore I don’t like it and I’m not going to follow it’ you’re putting us on the verge of anarchy. You don’t uphold the law as it’s been decided by the very courts and the Constitution that one purports to support.
I and every elected official in Greene County and every other jurisdictions have taken an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States and the state of Missouri.
Now, the founding documents that it’s based upon, and the most notable is the Declaration of Independence which outlines our most important three unalienable rights not given to us by government but by our creator: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
I would argue that in our current situation, the pursuit of happiness, it can feel like we’re struggling to find happiness. We’re not guaranteed happiness, we’re guaranteed the pursuit of happiness.
The bottom line is if we live through this, we will pursue it again.
All of our liberties right now still exist. This order is for a very short time for a very specific purpose. And that, by the way, is a Constitutional test. But respecting the stay at home orders can feel very constricting right now. But if we live, though, we’ll be at liberty to do many more things freely again. And the most important unalienable right is the right to live.
If you don’t have life, you don’t have liberty at all. Only in a situation like this would government have the authority to do what it is doing to protect life on a large scale.
It is very obvious if you look at international headlines, it has the potential to threaten the life of all of us. It threatens the lives of our elderly parents, our kids, our young adults, it has the potential to target the people on the front lines like healthcare providers and first responders.
Just as important, the economic pain is real.
I think in the end, having gone through this when we get out of it, we will all be more appreciative of those liberties, of those freedoms, and just being able to be with one another. To be able to hug a family member who is in isolation because they’re a healthcare worker who might have been exposed to the virus.
OI: And in regards to the legal authority?
Dixon: I’ll say I’m not an attorney, and I don’t purport to be, but it’s simple to have it explained it someone is open and interested, plus to read and study.
U.S. Public Health law is broad because it’s at the local level. County health departments. That’s why the Governor and the President have pointed to the county health departments.
Their authority is quite broad. It was broad during tuberculosis and polio outbreaks because it was broad during the Spanish Flu outbreaks. It was broad then because of previous epidemics and because of plagues in the 17th century in Europe.
When Missouri became a state in 1821, we actually imported English Common Law up to the 4th year of King James I. That’s in chapter one of our statutes. It was imported right into our statutes because of things like that and others.
That is where the authority comes from our of our statutes. Local government would not be able to do these things if it were not authorized by Missouri law. And that law would not stand if not for challenges over the years and the case law where it has been upheld. And all of that is under the Missouri Constitution and the challenges to it.
I have great respect for anyone who takes time to read the Constitution, who takes time to discuss it and appreciate it. But just because someone has an opinion, it doesn’t make them right, and that’s why we have courts to figure these things out.