Kansas City metro leaders consider making face masks mandatory in public

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Wearing face masks in public might soon be a requirement in Kansas City and other parts of the metro. 

Local health department directors on an group call Thursday discussed the possibility of mandating face coverings in the Kansas City area. But one community is pushing back. 

Coronavirus infections are rising at a quick rate. In Missouri, the state health department reported 19,421 coronavirus cases as of Thursday, a 9.5% increase in the last seven days.

Kansas saw coronavirus cases increase 20% during the two-week period that ended Wednesday, up more than 2,100 to nearly 13,000.

Many health officials say the latest group to be particularly affected is the most social group — people 20-29 years old — and they often aren’t wearing masks. 

“It’s clear that as society has opened up, the bars have opened up, especially young people have started congregating together again,” Dr. Steven Stites with KU Health System said. “The virus has taken off, and the pillars of infection control have not changed.”

But health officials say COVID-19 is on the rise because not everyone is following those pillars, like wearing masks and social distancing. 

So some local leaders are pushing to make it mandatory. 

“Now is it inconvenient? Absolutely. Do I not like wearing one? Absolutely. I like my air conditioning, but it’s necessary,” said Dr. Rex Archer, director of the Kansas City Health Department. 

Archer said Kansas City alone has 40-50 news cases every day and has already had the same amount of deaths in this second wave as the first. 

He pointed to two employees of a Springfield hair salon who continued working while experiencing symptoms and later tested positive for the virus. Archer said it’s an example of how well masks work to stop the spread. 

“The lucky thing is we’ve had zero cases from that exposure because why? They were all wearing their facial coverings and all of the customers were wearing facial coverings,” Archer said. “And they were cleaning and sanitizing the surfaces between each customer.”

Unified Government Health Director Juliann Van Liew said she knows people have mask fatigue. 

“They’re tired of it. They don’t wanna hear about it,” she said.

But she pointed to other communities that have implemented mask requirements that are now seeing case reductions. 

“So we in the metro area really need to get behind this, and it needs to become the norm, everyone wearing masks everywhere they go,” Van Liew said. 

She said the increase in positive cases isn’t because of an increase in testing. The KC metro is experiencing an outbreak, she said. 

Van Liew said wearing masks will be much easier and better for everyone than rolling back and possibly again having a stay-at-home order. 

“We’re really concerned about it honestly. I think people have become very comfortable,” she said. 

While Johnson County Health Director Dr. Samni Areola is also strongly advocating masks in public, he’s taking a different approach. 

He doesn’t support mandating them but instead wants to increase education about their importance and how they save lives. 

“I want to emphasize there’s a reason we call it public health,” Areola said. “It’s about building relationships with our community and working with them, and that’s the approach we decided to use in Johnson County.”

It’s a position that troubles Archer.

“I would not advise any of our residents to go over to Johnson County,” Archer said. “Obviously if they work there, they’ve got to be able to make an income. But it isn’t safe because they’re not doing the things they could be and should be doing to protect people.”

Areola responded to Archer’s objection by saying, “Quite frankly with Rex, a lot of the infections that we see around here are from people that live out of county. And so if Rex wants his staff to put on masks while they’re coming to Johnson County we would absolutely love that.”

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas expressed his displeasure with how Johnson County is handling the COVID-19 reopening during a news conference Thursday.

“I went to lunch with a friend of mine over on the Kansas side, and I was in someways astonished,” Lucas said.

“I was in Johnson County, and the fact that the servers were not wearing masks — it didn’t seem like social distancing rules are being followed,” the mayor continued. “This is the very sort of thing that can cause an outbreak, and as someone whose city borders Johnson County, I find it troubling.”

FOX4 reached out to Ed Eilert, chairman of the Johnson County Board of Commissioners, for comment, but we did not hear back. 

Announcements regarding possible mandated masks could be announced as soon as Friday.

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