Saturday, August 01, 2020

A Striking Symbol Of A City Built On Racial Inequality

currentaffairs |  On a Saturday in early March, an exclusive private all-girls academy in St. Louis, Missouri held its annual daddy-daughter dance. Unknown to guests or the Ritz-Carlton staff, a father-daughter pair broke quarantine to attend after being exposed to COVID-19 for days. 

The deadly virus had, up until that point, only existed in the news for the St. Louis region. The elder sister of the girl who attended the dance was the area’s first confirmed COVID-19 case; she had just returned from studying abroad in Italy, at a time when the U.S. media was saturated with apocalyptic images of an Italian healthcare system under enormous strain. Videos of Italian nighttime balcony singing, replete with accordions and tambourines, became the bright point of quarantine solidarity, and everyone knew the virus was headed for Missouri since it had already hit New York, and was developing in Chicago. At first, local gatherings over 1,000 were canceled, then 100, then 10. Much of the Midwest held on to a sliver of hope that our lower-density region might fare better than the big cities. Maybe we could pull up the drawbridges, as St. Louis did during the 1918 Spanish influenza, and isolate from the rest of the world; maybe our rusty, hollowed-out downtown would form a rampart against the wave.

Asymptomatic, the elder sister landed in Chicago and boarded an Amtrak train to St. Louis. She quickly began to show symptoms, and on Thursday, two days before the dance, she “went to Mercy Hospital and was evaluated before being sent home to quarantine with her parents, who were not showing any signs of sickness.” She was tested, her Amtrak train was taken out of service to be cleaned, and a quarantine request from St. Louis County was, reportedly, issued that Thursday, March 5th. Her “presumed positive” case was widely reported on Friday. 

Panic set in on Sunday, March 8th, as attendees of the dance—some of the richest families in St. Louis—were ordered by the County Executive to quarantine inside their $800,000 estates. The Ritz-Carlton shut down to sterilize its ballroom, bathrooms, and kitchen. Before the dance, the father was rumored to have visited Deer Creek Coffee near their house in Ladue—locally referred to as La-douche, one of the wealthiest zip codes in Missouri. The coffee shop was forced to publicly deny having served the father. St. Louis County Executive Dr. Sam Page, MD, held a press conference that underplayed the point: “From everything we can gather, the patient had conducted herself responsibly and maturely and she is to be commended for complying with the health department’s instructions.” He added,  “The patient’s father did not act consistently with the health department’s instructions.”
The family’s attorney, Neil Bruntrager, materialized to dispute every detail: “These poor people are being pilloried and vilified,” he said. “They were being proactive. They were trying to deal with this problem.” Bruntrager, incidentally, was a well-paid legal representative of both STL Police Officer Jason Stockley, who murdered twenty-four-year-old Anthony Lamar Smith, and Officer Darren Wilson, who murdered Michael Brown. 

Starting with St. Louis’ white upper class, COVID-19 spread quickly to the working-class communities. So far, a disproportionate number of cases and deaths have been—much like the victims of police brutality—working-class Black St. Louisians.