Kansas counties can opt out of, change governor’s face mask mandate

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OLATHE, Kan. — In Kansas, a compromise that came late in the legislative session could make Gov. Laura Kelly’s mask mandate toothless. 

That compromise gives counties the chance to enact less stringent health orders, including this mask order. 

Officials in some counties already were signalling Tuesday that they planned to opt out of Kelly’s mandate.

The order, which Kelly is expected to detail Thursday ahead of it taking effect Friday, would make masks mandatory in stores, restaurants and in any situation where social distancing of 6 feet cannot be maintained, including outside.

Wyandotte County and Douglas County have already made their own mask requirements before Kelly’s announcement. Wyandotte County’s began Tuesday, and Douglas County’s will begin Wednesday. 

But Johnson County could opt out of the order. 

On Thursday, the Johnson County Commission will hold an emergency meeting to talk specifics when it comes to masks and whether they should remain mandatory.

The county’s health director has repeatedly said, although he supports wearing masks, he doesn’t believe in forcing people to wear them. 

One county commissioner said he’ll also push to keep masks an option.

“If you want to wear your mask, wear it,” Commissioner Mike Brown said. “But government should not tell people, ‘You shall wear a mask,’ because if government can tell you to wear a mask, what can government tell you to do next?”

Brown said he isn’t necessarily against wearing a mask, but he is against the mandate.

He said it shouldn’t be up to the government to decide who should wear a mask, and when it needs to be worn. 

Other Kansas counties

Johnson County isn’t the only government facing the mask decision this week.

In Sedgwick County, which home to the state’s largest city, Wichita, County Commissioner Jim Howell said he has been inundated with emails since Kelly’s announcement. 

“In our state we love our freedom,” Howell said. “In practice we can encourage and educate. And then we have to trust them to make the best decision for themselves and their family.”

During the two weeks ending Monday, Sedgwick County saw a nearly 66% increase in reported cases, up 500 to 1,260.

Lacey Cruse, another Sedgwick County commissioner, called a mask requirement “one of the best options to keep people employed and out and about” while trying to check the pandemic.

But even with recent increases, Sedgwick County has 2.44 reported cases per 1,000 residents, less than half the state’s figure of 4.96. And Howell asked about a mask requirement, “How in the world are we going to enforce it?”

“Are we going to issue tickets and fines and potential jail time for people who refuse to wear masks in public?” he said.

Kansas has seen a spike in confirmed coronavirus cases since May 26, when Kelly lifted statewide restrictions on businesses and public gathering and left decisions to the state’s 105 counties.

The Democratic governor had faced complaints for weeks from the Republican-controlled Legislature that she was too slow in reopening the state’s economy.

The state Department of Health and Environment reported 14,443 cases as of Monday, which was up by more than 3,000, or 26.5%, in the previous two weeks. Kansas also reported 270 COVID-19-related deaths, which was an increase of 25, or 10%, over the previous two weeks.

During those two weeks, reported cases tied to gatherings, such as groups in bars and restaurants, church events and family get-togethers, increased by 55%, up 110 to 311.

In Riley County in northeast Kansas, the city of Manhattan is considering a mask requirement after outbreaks in its Aggieville bar and restaurant district near the Kansas State University campus.

But County Commissioner John Ford said most of the people who’ve reached out to him oppose a mandate — even if they’re pro-mask.

“It’s the ‘logistics,’” he said. “How do we get 18- to 20-years-old to comply?”

In Russell County, Commissioner Don Boxberger said he has been getting calls from people not wanting a mask requirement as the commission prepares to discuss it Monday.

The rural western Kansas county, which relies on farming, cattle and oil wells, is one of just eight in the state still without a reported coronavirus case.

“People are saying they don’t want to do it and they aren’t going to do it,” said Boxberger, who said he hasn’t decided how to vote but is leaning against a mandate.

Russell County Administrator John Fletcher, a former sheriff, said even if local officials wanted to require masks, the sheriff’s department couldn’t enforce the rule.

“There’s no way we’d have the resources,” he said.

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