With the number of COVID-19 cases in Ellis County jumping with every new report from the county health department, Hays City Commissioners on Thursday begged residents to wear a mask in public.
City Commissioner Michael Berges led the charge with a statement at the end of the commission’s regular meeting in City Hall, where people are required to wear masks to enter.
Berges cited the danger of the virus to his toddler son and others.
"I’m asking a personal plea for those that can’t wear a mask," said Berges, who wore his mask throughout the evening commission meeting.
"I have a two-year-old son who has a heart condition and he’s gone through flu seasons, not a big deal. The doctors told us he does not want to get this with his conditions," Berges said. "He can’t wear a mask, and it’s not because he has a heart condition or because he can’t breathe through a mask or something like that. It’s because he’s two. And he puts a hat on, he wants to pull it off. He has hearing aids, and he pulls those out all the time."
Berges said it’s the same with his 4-year-old, who doesn’t have an underlying condition. But he also cited the elderly, like his 91-year-old grandfather, who’s in a care home.
"He has been in lockdown since March," Berges said. "That is giving up your freedom. He has not seen anybody in his room since March; they don’t even allow the other residents in that facility to visit each other. He has 40 great grandchildren. He’s had two more born since March that he’s not been able to see."
City Hall’s mask requirement is the exception locally, where masks are not mandated by the county. Hays Recreation announced Thursday it was requiring masks starting Monday for all indoor activities through Hays Rec. That applies to staff, spectators and leisure program participants over five.
Like officials in many other Kansas counties, Ellis County Commissioners earlier this month voted to exempt Ellis County from Gov. Laura Kelly’s mandate that everyone in the state wear a mask in public when it’s not possible to social distance.
At that meeting, Health Department Director Jason Kennedy said it’s OK for people to decide to wear a mask.
Some Kansas cities, such as Manhattan, despite their county exemptions, have passed ordinances requiring masks.
The four Hays City Commissioners at Thursday’s meeting each had their masks, but chose to sit at a distance from one another at the commission horseshoe.
All the city staff in the audience, each one at a distance from one another, wore masks until called to present their agenda item at the podium.
"I am not to the point of asking for a resolution from my fellow commissioners or an ordinance from the city," Berges said.
"For those people that are in care homes, our elderly that are vulnerable to the virus, I’m asking to wear the mask for them," he said. "For the children, the ones that can’t, and there are plenty of others that are adults that for personal reasons of health, mental issues, physical reasons, they can’t wear the mask."
As in other areas of northwest Kansas, the number of active COVID-19 cases in Ellis County is on the rise, particularly after Kelly began lifting statewide gathering restrictions. Besides earlier clusters at meatpacking plants in southwest Kansas, clusters related to the virus have popped up in northwest Kansas.
City Commissioner Mason Ruder agreed, and also spoke in favor of masking up.
"I’m the same way, I don’t feel at this moment we should do a resolution, a mandate to force people to do it," Ruder said.
He did ask residents to respect requests from business owners to wear a mask to enter their establishment.
"Do what you can and wear the mask," Ruder said. "Yeah, it can be an inconvenience sometimes, I’m not a huge fan of wearing them, I don’t like stuff in my face. But I will do it because it’s a small price to pay for allowing our economy to continue going strong like it has been."
Like Berges, Ruder encouraged residents to work together as a community to tackle the problem.
"Never in my life would I have thought this would be cause for so much animosity towards each other," Ruder said at one point, then added later, "I want to take my health, and my family’s health, and the health of my friends and family and neighbors, all in to account and do what I can to respect everyone’s decision."
City Commissioner Sandy Jacobs also agreed, saying it’s both a humanitarian and an economic issue.
"I actually had a conversation from somebody outside of our community today that said if they came in to our community to shop, which they normally do, and there wasn’t consistent use of masks, they probably weren’t coming back," Jacobs said. "That concerns me a lot."
Also of concern is the matter of when or if schools reopen, she indicated.
"That’s just a short month away," Jacobs said. "The economic impact of that can be just as strong as shutting down our economy … If we have to keep parents at home, if they can’t be at their jobs, if they can’t support their families in that way, the economic impact on this community is going to be huge."
She said she’ll use the mask when not social distancing.
"Please I beg in our community, let’s take care of this community like we always have before," Jacobs said.
Phillips County Health Department on Friday confirmed two more deaths at Logan Manor, where two have already died at the assisted living home. The report said a 92-year-old woman died Thursday and a 60-year-old man died Friday. Phillips County reported it has 27 active cases, including five new Logan Manor residents and three more staff.
Graham County reported Thursday that it now had six positive cases, and five probable cases, meaning people who haven’t been tested but have developed symptoms after contact with a confirmed case.
Graham County also reported 104 people quarantined. Earlier in the week, health officials said they were contact-tracing kids, teens and adults who had attended a vacation bible school in Moreland where a person turned up with COVID-19.
In Ellis County, Kennedy reported Friday that the number of cases had jumped by 10 from his Wednesday report.
As of Friday, that meant Ellis County had 16 active cases, with 29 recovered, for 45 total now. There have been no deaths. Active cases have had mild symptoms and are in home isolation, he said.
Wednesday’s number was a jump of five over Monday’s, which was an increase of three over the Friday before.
Kennedy reports the number of cases three times a week on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.