Hays puts mask mandate on meeting agenda

Margaret Allen

If the county won’t, the city most likely will.

After seeing COVID-19 numbers progressively escalate in Ellis County, Hays City Commissioners at their regular work session Thursday indicated they may pass an ordinance requiring masks be worn in public spaces.

“I myself would like us to put this on the agenda for next week because we don’t know where those numbers are going to go,” said City Commissioner Ron Mellick. “We also give the county next week, they could make a decision.”

The Ellis County Commissioners last Monday at their regular meeting reluctantly said it might be time to look at considering a mask mandate. The county has seen a spike in cases since the Fourth of July holiday. The county commission meets again Monday evening.

“If they don’t make that decision, then we’re probably going to have to make that decision for them,” Mellick said. “We’ll give them a chance, and we’ll revisit this next Thursday night. If we have it on the agenda, then it’s there and we don’t have to pass it, but it’s there so that we can if the county doesn’t step up to the plate.”

City Commission Chairman Shaun Musil acknowledged the strong opinions people have about masks. Musil noted that just a few weeks ago he was opposed to a mandate, and was skeptical of city manager Toby Dougherty’s decision to require masks to enter City Hall. But Musil's opinion has changed, and he commended Dougherty for making the call.

“Guys I’m telling you if we have another week like this week, I think it’s time. I hope we don’t. I hope next week is a lot better,” Musil said. “But we’ve just got to take care of our community.”

Gov. Laura Kelly mandated masks statewide starting July 4 weekend, but the Ellis County Commissioners voted to exempt Ellis County from the mandate.

Ellis County Health Services director Jason Kennedy reported at Monday’s county commission meeting that, since July 6, the county has seen cases jump by 30, primarily from a few clusters involving Fourth of July gatherings.

Kennedy’s Monday report showed the county with 18 active cases. As of Friday, active cases had doubled to 36, he reported, with three hospitalizations so far.

Since the city commission’s meeting last Thursday, the county has had its first COVID-19 death. Ronald Louis Thyfault, 91, died in his home. He is survived by his wife of 69 years, Virginia, nine children and their spouses, 31 grandchildren and 36 great grandchildren.

Thyfault’s obituary on Page A7 of Sunday’s Hays Daily News says he battled COVID-19 for 10 days.

Holding up his mask Thursday evening, Musil said he personally questions if it stops anything.

“But it’s the right thing to do,” he said.

City Commissioner Sandy Jacobs agreed with Musil.

“I initially said I could not be in favor of mandates, and I am not today. One week is going to make a difference,” Jacobs said. “If this continues to grow, I just don’t think we have any choice, and I’d be ready to make that decision next week.”

As of Friday, the most current number, Ellis County had reached a total of 77 cases, up from 57 on Monday.

City Commissioner Mason Ruder said Thursday that at a doctor’s appointment earlier in the day his physician was busy with COVID-19 cases popping up.

“I said, ‘do you think it’s time to mandate?’ He goes ‘It was time a few weeks ago,’ ” Ruder said.

Ruder said he doesn’t like what he called the strong arm of mandates, believing people will step up and do the right thing, but if the numbers get worse it might be time to look at it.

“This isn’t a political attack, we’re not trying to take your rights away. If you don’t wear a mask if it’s mandated, we won’t lock you up,” Ruder said. “Let’s work together and tackle this thing before it becomes a bigger issue than it is. Because it’s here and it’s going to spread. Stay away from each other, social distance, no large gatherings.”

Musil referenced Kelly’s announcement Wednesday that K-12 schools in Kansas won’t be allowed to open until after the Labor Day holiday due to the big spike in cases statewide.

“When I told my kids they couldn’t go to school before Labor Day, they cried,” Musil said. “How sad is that? A senior, a sophomore and a third-grader crying cause they want to go to school. They miss their friends. They want to get out and be with their friends. And if it takes wearing this, people, wear the damn mask. This isn’t political.”

It might ensure getting kids back to school, he indicated.

“If these kids don’t get in school soon, they are going to be so far behind,” Musil said.

Walmart on Wednesday joined the growing number of retailers requiring shoppers to wear masks in their stores. The nation’s largest retailer was shortly followed by national grocer Kroger, including its two local Dillons stores in Hays. Other big chains doing the same include Starbucks, Home Depot, Target, Best Buy and CVS.

“It’s coming to a point where the virus doesn’t care about your defiance,” said City Commissioner Michael Berges, who begged the public during the previous Thursday’s commission meeting to wear masks for the sake of those who are most vulnerable to the disease.

“It’s becoming where you’re going to have less and less places where you can be defiant,” Berges said. “More and more businesses are requiring a mask.”

That will likely include school kids too, he said.

“Defiance is just absurd at this point because there are so many places that you’re not going to be able to go anyway. If we start wearing it religiously,” he said, “then maybe we could get through this a little quicker than we’re finding out.”

In reporting the latest numbers Friday, Kennedy said 50% of Ellis County cases are people 55 and older. That’s higher than the statewide rate of 34%.

"That is an alarming trend," he said, advocating again for social distancing, and avoiding mass gatherings.

"The further away you are from people," said Kennedy on Friday, "the less risk you have of contracting the virus."

At Thursday’s meeting, Dougherty presented the commissioners with a draft ordinance. City attorney John Bird adopted it from one passed earlier this month by the City of Wichita.

“We took out a couple provisions that we thought were a little overburdensome for the public and the businesses,” Dougherty said.

Jacobs mentioned Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Robert Redfield’s comment Tuesday that masks for a few weeks could significantly slow COVID-19 transmission.

“If we just wear these masks for six weeks, we could have things pretty calmed down by the time it’s time for these kids to go back to school,” Jacobs said.

Mellick said an onslaught of hospitalizations will create problems for people who need elective and emergency surgeries.

“We put them all at risk,” he said.

“I think we’re all going to get coronavirus at one time or another,” he said, “mask or no mask. The biggest thing is that we don’t get our health care system overwhelmed.”