Hays requires masks

Margaret Allen
Fort Hays State University President Tisa Mason told the Hays City Commission at its regular meeting in City Hall on Thursday evening that the university will require masks on campus when students return, and said a consistent message from the city would be helpful.

Starting Monday, people in Hays must wear masks in public where they can’t socially distance.

The Hays City Commissioners on Thursday evening voted 4-1 to require masks after several weeks of what they’ve described as brutal agonizing.

Their choice came down to public feedback, they said, with the commissioners noting that emails, calls and public comments drove their decisions.

“What I’d really like to make clear tonight, how much I appreciate everybody coming forward and giving their opinions, whichever side it was on,” said Commissioner and Vice Mayor Sandy Jacobs. “The people that did that, actually probably made the decision on this ordinance.”

Jacobs, who voted in favor of masking, said “This is the most I’ve ever had anybody interact with me on anything in the city, and I’ve been on this commission four years.”

Mayor Shaun Musil agreed, speaking Thursday at City Hall during the commission’s regular meeting after hearing numerous people took the microphone to comment.

“Those people that spoke out, it definitely made it easier for me,” Musil said.

Masks are required starting 8 a.m. Monday until midnight Monday, Aug. 31. It applies to everyone over the age of 8. There are 10 exemptions, including for people with health conditions that prevent wearing a mask.

“I’m listening to all of you that say I need to listen to everybody in this community,“ Jacobs said. “I read every single email; I responded to every single email … It was 65% in favor, and 35% against.”

Only one letter was anonymous, she said, “and boy I’m proud of the citizens of this community for that.”

Commissioner Mason Ruder was the lone vote against the ordinance. Despite that, Ruder said he’s not refusing to wear a mask, encouraged people to socially distance and follow the guidelines for mitigating risk, and said he will support and comply with the ordinance and businesses that require masks.

In voting against the ordinance, Ruder questioned being able to enforce it, and advocated for education.

“I don’t like the idea of mandates, and ordinances as an educational tool,” he said. “I’ve been contacted by so many people who know that it’s the right thing to do to protect you, your family and your citizens. I think that decision is best left between the individual and their physician.”

Ruder thanked all the people who took a three-minute turn at the microphone to give their opinion, as well as all the people who came just to listen, packing the room and the hallway outside.

“I wish our hall looked like this all the time. It’s so nice to see people involved in your local government. It shows you actually care,” Ruder said, getting nods and ‘yes’ from the other commissioners.

“Government doesn’t start at Trump Biden and end there,” he said. “It starts right here, down the street, right here on Main Street. So it’s nice to see everybody coming in here.”

Majority said masks

Ellis County Commissioners earlier in the week at their regular Monday meeting passed on requiring masks countywide, a move the city commissioners had said the week prior they wished the county would make. The county commissioners have noted their aggravation that they’ve been both praised and taken a beating from people on social media, via emails and on calls.

Dustin Roths, one of the three county commissioners outspoken against mask mandates, has maintained individual rights and personal responsibility as his reasons against a mandate.

But Roths was in the audience on Thursday, and spoke at the podium during the public comment session.

“If you do decide to put an ordinance in for masks, I will support you, because I think that’s what we should do,” he said. “I am so sick and tired of people taking public officials like us, who are in really tough situations, and making our vote seem like we don’t love or care about this community. I know that you all do, otherwise you wouldn’t be up here working the way you are.”

Noting the issue has gotten very emotional, Roths said “I want you guys to make the decision that’s right for you and the data you were given.”

City Commissioner Michael Berges, also new to the commission and one of the commission’s earliest and strongest advocates for masks, later in the meeting thanked Roths for coming.

Berges said despite what he’s said in the past, his vote for the ordinance was not a foregone conclusion, and he didn’t reach his decision easily, going instead with majority opinion. Commending the people who came to City Hall and spoke, Berges said it “does take some spirit and some gumption to come down and speak to the commission.”

Like the other commissioners, Berges thanked everyone who contacted him, and said “I read every email.”

Of the 121 who reached out, including the people at the meeting, as well as the anonymous letter, 60% were in favor, he said.

Also the past week, Berges noted, he contacted the six largest employers and four educational institutions in the city, and asked them their preference.

“Eighty-six percent responded back to me and said they would have me vote yes,” Berges said. “It’s not a small minority. That tells me our community is asking for help. They’re asking for guidance, and to do all that we can to mitigate this virus. I am here to say the optimal level of this virus is zero.”

Business and educational institutions are asking the community to come together and for the commission to take the lead, he said.

“People are telling me yes, that’s what they want, to drive it toward zero,” said Berges.

Enforcement, signage

Asked about enforcement, city manager Toby Dougherty said business owners aren’t liable for their customers not wearing masks, unless they just blatantly disregard the ordinance. The city has signage available free to businesses, Dougherty said.

Longtime City Commissioner Ron Mellick agreed with Ruder that enforcement will be key. City staff are working with the Hays Police Department on how to educate the public, Mellick said.

Mellick voted in favor of the ordinance.

“I look at this a lot like pain management. Whenever you are in extreme pain, the doctor wants you to get ahead of the curve, not behind the curve. They want to do the minimum that they can,” Mellick said. “And that’s the way I look at this. We want to start out with face masks. We don’t want to go back and having businesses close down, wrecking the economy. So I want to stay ahead of the curve.”

Mellick said people have called him upset they’ve been quarantined when a family member was exposed. One told him, “I’ve been out of work for two weeks. We’re having a heck of a time trying to make ends meet, buy groceries, pay our bills, and I haven’t even had it yet. What’s going to happen if we are quarantined again, or if I do get the COVID?”

Jacobs also said masks are the right thing to do right now in Hays. More than 26% of the population is over 55, she said.

Citing advice from the chief of infectious disease at the University of Kansas Medical Center, Jacobs said masks at this stage of the virus in Hays, where confirmed active cases are low, are an opportunity.

“Denser populations that did not do that,” she said, “are behind the 8-ball now.”

Data: Masks work

There’s a lot of data that masks reduce overall infection rates of COVID-19, said HaysMed physician Ernesto Lopez-Corona, who was invited by the commission to speak by phone.

COVID-19 is an airborne transmitted disease, Lopez-Corona said, spreading from person-to-person in close contact as droplets carrying the virus are passed. It can also be sent through the air in droplets, or in much smaller, aerosolized molecules that can be inhaled into the lungs and airways, he said.

Masks stop the droplets from becoming aerosolized or atomized, he said. Studies looking at whether masks work go back as far as SARS and MERS, the viruses that previously have spread through Asia.

“It is effective,” said Lopez-Corona, but a mask is not the only measure. Social distancing, hand sanitizing and avoiding mass gatherings must also be followed.

“Just because all these particles are floating through the air, once the droplets come out of our mouths and they become aerosolized, then they become a very small particle and they’re just floating all over the place,” he said. “Indoors it even becomes worse.”

Some 40% of infections are transmitted by asymptomatic carriers, he said.

“That is why people have to wear the mask, and follow all the rules,” said Lopez-Corona. “Everyone has to do it. It’s very inconvenient.”

Musil said the decision isn’t political, and that he doesn’t want to see Hays shut down again.

“I firmly believe if we pass this we will slow the spread,” he said. “I’ve heard from doctors that we haven’t even seen the worst. I hope they’re wrong.”

Like Ruder, who said “the divisiveness is toxic,” Musil called on Hays to come together.

“For the people who have said they’re going to shop out of town at other grocery stores, I want to tell you, I know Jeff that runs the Ellis grocery store and Ken that runs the Plainville grocery store, and Dave and John that run the Russell grocery store. Those are super people and I promise you they will take care of you well. I consider those small towns part of the Hays community.”

Testing accurate

There’s no doubt the cases in Ellis County are COVID-19 and not something else, like the common cold, as some suggest, said Ellis County Health Services director Jason Kennedy, who was also invited to report on the virus in the county.

There are currently 34 active COVID-19 cases, Kennedy said.

“The PCR test is specific. When they stick the swab up your nose and jab your brain, that is specific to COVID-19,” he said. “If you’re positive on that test, you have COVID-19 viral material.”

It doesn’t necessarily mean the person is currently contagious, can infect others or has the live virus. The virus may be inactive or in the shedding phase, he said. But of the 104 total cases in the county since March, he said, “It’s highly unlikely that that number is inaccurate.”

Berges said the mask debate in Ellis County drives home the importance of local government, but he cautioned that people can’t have it both ways.

“You can’t applaud taking authority and decision-making away from the governor, then cry foul when it doesn’t agree with you,” Berges said.

“You can’t worship at the altar of all local governance, and then say your rights have been taken away by some elite,” he continued. “Tomorrow I’m going to go back and work with my clients and try and navigate their financials through this uncertain time … Mason’s going to go back and work at the county tomorrow trying to improve our county. Sandy’s going to be out in the community, raising funds for nonprofits to make our community better. Shaun will be at his store, serving up wine, making people happy, on a beautiful All-American Main Street. And Ron will be out there crawling around on a floor working in somebody’s home, or house, or business, or apartment, or whatever he’s out there improving … We’re all part of the community. That’s the whole idea of local governance … We have to live with the same decisions that we make, each and every time we vote.”

Despite the differing opinions, Musil urged people to be respectful.

“I know people are going to be mad at us tomorrow,” Musil said, “but I promise every single one of us did our homework and we feel like we’re doing the best for our community.”

People lined up in the hallway of City Hall on Thursday evening to hear the Hays City Commission take public comments and vote on a mask ordinance. [Margaret Allen/Hays Daily News]