Kelly to seek meeting with legislative leaders in pursuit of mask agreement

Andrew Bahl
Gov. Laura Kelly said Wednesday she would push legislative leaders to find an agreement on a statewide mask wearing policy.

Gov. Laura Kelly said Wednesday she would seek a meeting with legislative leaders in an effort to forge bipartisan agreement on a statewide policy on mask wearing, with COVID-19 cases continuing to increase across Kansas.

Kelly said her administration is “considering all the avenues” available to it to require masks, although her options are limited after compromise legislation was passed in June allowing counties to opt out of statewide public health directives, including the mask mandate.

While 15 counties have continued to require the practice, many parts of western Kansas that are seeing dramatic increases in their COVID-19 case counts don’t.

“For months, many have mistakenly shared the idea that this virus will never reach our rural and lower population areas,” Kelly said. “Now it is worse in those towns and counties than it is in our cities.”

No meeting has been scheduled, Kelly said, and it isn’t known whether it would happen before the Nov. 3 election.

Laura McCabe, a spokesperson for Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said none of the top Republicans in the chamber had been contacted by the governor’s office as of yet.

In a statement, Wagle appeared skeptical of the governor’s intent.

“I’ve stated all along and still believe a one-size-fits all COVID solution doesn’t work for our diverse state,” she said. “Local leaders have done a great job in dictating local responses after public hearings and discussions with their constituents.”

It is also not clear whether Kelly would be pushing for a special session, which would likely be needed to pursue a larger legislative fix, or if the matter would be taken up by the State Finance Council, the body composed of Kelly and legislative leaders that has handled many aspects of the pandemic response.

But Kelly said she wanted action to come quickly, saying Kansans couldn’t wait. She pointed to a modified mask mandate introduced in Texas by Gov. Greg Abbott where the requirement kicked in only once the infection rate in a county hit a certain threshold.

“People don’t have time for us to wait around to let an election be over with,” she said. “We need to start these conversations. We need to come to resolution as soon as we possibly can and not let, as has happened over the last seven or eight months, politics play a part in this.“

The state saw 1,488 new cases of COVID-19 since Monday, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. The agency also reported an increase of 80 deaths although most are older fatalities that are only now being reported after records have been confirmed.

The sharpest rise in cases has been in the western part of the state, with Norton County in northwest Kansas having one of the largest percent increase in cases nationally.

The state Norton Correctional Facility reported 181 cases Wednesday, the highest rate among all state jails.

And the Andbe Home, a long-term care facility in Norton, has received national attention after an outbreak there infected all 72 residents and has resulted in 10 deaths.

Both KDHE and the Kansas Division of Emergency Management have provided support to the facility, Kelly said.

That has included personal protective equipment, respirators and testing supplies and KDHE has been in contact with local public health officials, as well as the Norton County Hospital, to provide support.

“Steps are being taken to prevent any further outbreak including quarantining residents in their rooms and not allowing outside visitors into the facility,” the Norton County Health Department said in a news release Monday night.

Statewide, KDHE reported 250 clusters associated with long-term care facilities, associated with over 3,800 COVID-19 cases.

Kelly said the state had received 55,000 of the 870,000 rapid tests it is due from the federal government and the increase in cases would inform where they are deployed.

“We will be plugging all of that kind of information in,” she said.

Rental assistance available

The Kelly administration also announced Wednesday that tenants and landlords adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic could apply for a cut of a $35 million aid program financed by federal relief dollars.

Under the program, landlords and tenants jointly apply for up to $5,000 per household to cover delinquent rental payments. The landlord must agree not to evict the tenant for the months the assistance is given.

Kelly said it is disappointing that the state has had to fill in for a lack of federal action to support renters.

“It's unfortunate that now nearly two months later, the (U.S.) Senate has still failed to respond with the necessary resources for those who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own,” she said.

Applications are processed in the order in which they are received and the program will be run by the Kansas Housing Resources Corporation.