Hays' mask ordinance may expire Wednesday

Margaret Allen
Hays Daily News
Wearing required masks Friday evening at The Heritage Eatery & Bingo, are, left side of table, left to right: Jaelyn Rigby, Hays, Terri Mannel, Hutchinson, and Pashyn Jones, Hays; and right side of table: Carl Denny, Hays, and Jaelyn and Pashyn's grandmother, Cathy Rigby, Hays, with Heritage owner, Janel Molleker, Hays.
The Heritage Eatery & Bingo

The Hays mask mandate will automatically expire Wednesday if Ellis County continues so few new COVID-19 cases a day.

The City of Hays ordinance requiring masks automatically expires if the county hits a specific benchmark for new virus cases, confirmed city manager Toby Dougherty on Friday.

“I believe if we were below five through Wednesday of next week that that would be the trigger for the 14 days of the seven-day average being under five, and there would be an automatic expiration of the ordinance,” Dougherty said.

Friday, the most current numbers until Monday around noon, showed the county tracking 10 days with a seven-day average of two, according to Jason Kennedy, Ellis County health administrator. 

Even a jump in cases over five early in the week wouldn’t start the clock over on the 14 consecutive days, said Kennedy.

“The city’s ordinance is specifically written to reference the seven-day average,” Kennedy said, “as long as there’s not a spike high enough to skew the seven-day average. So it would have to be a pretty significant jump.”

City will announce

Ellis County doesn’t have a mask mandate. The City of Hays began requiring masks where social distancing isn’t possible July 27, 2020. City officials added a trigger mechanism Oct. 2, 2020, so that once a benchmark is reached, the ordinance goes away without the city commission taking action.

The Ellis County Health Department releases new COVID-19 case numbers every Monday, Wednesday and Friday in the early afternoon. That information includes the seven-day average. Dougherty explained what is likely to happen Wednesday.

“If that’s the case and those numbers are under five, and it’s under five today and Monday, then yes, whenever we got those numbers that day, we would send a press release out, informing the public that the ordinance has expired,” he said. “And if you have signs, or any other reference to the ordinance, please take it down, and we’re reminding people that there still is a state mandate.”

Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive order requires that masks be worn. But unlike the city ordinance, which carries a fine for violations, there is no penalty provision with the governor’s mandate, Dougherty said.

If the city tried to prosecute under the governor’s order, it would have to file charges in district court and let the court figure out what the penalty is, he said.

“I’m not going to say it’s unenforceable, but it has a low-level enforcement mechanism,” said Dougherty, indicating Hays police wouldn’t be enforcing it. “That’s quite frankly not something we would undertake.”

Local businesses may have a different plan.

“As a private business, you can set the terms and conditions of entrance to your business, so if Walmart, Dillons, whatever, Ace Hardware, wanted to require mask mandates, they have every right to do that,” Dougherty said. “And if somebody doesn’t want to comply, then our police department could get involved from a trespassing perspective, just like any other thing that a customer’s not complying with.”

For the city to put a new mask mandate into place, the city commission would have to start the process over again, he said.

High testing, low cases

Kennedy said Friday that the county is seeing about one new case of COVID-19 a day. There have been quite a few days with zero new cases, he said, despite there being a high amount of testing for the virus in the county.

“My personal opinion is, we have reached a level where we have enough people in the community that have some level of immunity, either through having the virus, or being exposed to the virus, or through vaccination, or through good public health measures,” Kennedy said. “We have a large amount of the population that is unable to contract the virus at this point, and so that’s why you see our numbers of testing really high, and our number of cases really low.”

COVID-19 has an infection rate of 1.5, meaning every person who gets it will likely infect 1.5 other people, he said. With half the Ellis County population unable to contract the illness, then the infection rate is half that, said Kennedy, or 0.75, leaving the virus unable to propagate.

“That really is the only way to explain what we’re seeing,” he said.

Looking at the data from KDHE, Kennedy said that on Sept. 3, 2020, the county recorded its highest number of people tested since testing began in early 2020. Of 306 people tested, 55 turned up positive, a high daily rate of cases for the county.

After Nov. 24, 2020, that relationship began changing. The county continued with big numbers of people getting tested, but new cases dropped drastically, Kennedy said.

On Feb. 3, when the county recorded its second-highest number of people tested, 296, only nine people turned up positive.

“Which means less sickness in the community,” said Kennedy.

Right now, the odds of getting COVID-19 in Ellis County are low, he said, but Kennedy still encourages testing, particularly for anyone with symptoms.

“Testing should be to rule out what’s going on,” he said. “You might be sick from something else.”

Get vaccinated

Likewise, Kennedy encourages getting vaccinated.

From what he sees, he estimates a third of people want the vaccine as soon as they can get it, another third are undecided and wait-and-see, and another third are dead-set against it.

“For the people that are in that wait-and-see round, the vaccine is safe, the vaccine is effective, there’s really no reason to wait,” he said. “There’s no reason to sit back and see. We’ve had very good success with the vaccine, very low amount of symptoms.”

Ellis County expects to receive 1,000 Pfizer doses on Tuesday, the day of its next weekly federal shipment funneled through the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

That’s a bigger shipment than usual. Normally, Ellis County receives about 500 or fewer, all of which are administered by appointment the next day at the county’s vaccine clinic in the former Gordmans retail store in Big Creek Crossing mall.

This Wednesday, however, many of the doses are reserved for educators and school staff, from K-12 to Fort Hays State University and NCK Tech.

Enough for all

Kennedy estimates that about 6,000 people have been vaccinated so far with the first dose.

The health department has administered first doses to about 4,000 people. HaysMed has probably vaccinated another 1,000, he said, and pharmacies another 1,000.

With the Johnson & Johnson one-dose vaccine on the verge of being shipped, Kennedy thinks the county is three weeks away from having widespread vaccine availability.

“By the beginning of April, I’m hopeful that we’ll have enough vaccine that really anybody can get it,” Kennedy said, cautioning however that, “I shudder to put any numbers out on how many vaccines we get until I have them in my hands. Two weeks ago, we were scrambling because our vaccines were stuck in Tennessee because of the snowstorm. So you know, there’s so many factors that we don’t control.”

Get it where you can

Anyone wanting a vaccine from the county can register for an appointment through the health department’s website. As vaccine is available, people are given an appointment.

The pharmacies at Walmart and Dillons in Ellis County have also been approved to vaccinate, and likewise have sign ups on their web sites.

After school personnel get their doses, Ellis County health department doses will continue being administered by appointment to people over 65 or frontline workers first.

About 3,000 people are registered now with the health department, although more continue to sign up, he said.

“We’re getting it out as quickly as possible,” he said, but “sign up anywhere that you can sign up. Sign up with us, sign up with the pharmacies, sign up with anybody anywhere you can get it. Get the vaccine as quickly as possible.”

The City of Hays, for example, reached out to Graham County to get vaccines for some of the city’s 181 full-time employees.

Law enforcement and fire department employees got their vaccines earlier this year during the first rollout to frontline workers. That wasn’t the case for administration, public works, parks, water resources and other staff.

“We went through a pharmacy out of Graham County,” said Dougherty. “Some of these counties outside of Ellis have received more vaccines than they have people that are signed up. So they are trying to get as many people vaccinated as they can. Our HR director contracted with them to come down essentially on four separate occasions to administer the two shots to all the city employees who want it.”

More than half want the vaccine, he said.

The first round of shots for a group of 40 employees was Feb. 24, Dougherty said. Another round of employees will get their first shot Wednesday.

Scams

Kennedy warned that a national vaccine scam has turned up in Ellis County, too. Scammers call asking people to pay out-of-pocket for a vaccine, or to get on a waiting list or to get early access. Some scammers offer to sell or ship doses for payment. None of that is legit, he said.

Anyone worried about a phone call they've received should call the health department for verification, he said.