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More than half of Kansas counties now have mask mandates

Titus Wu and Andrew Bahl
The Topeka Capital-Journal
Gov. Laura Kelly removes her mask to answer questions regarding COVID cases thorughout the state at Wednesday's news conference at the Statehouse.

It seems as if Gov. Laura Kelly’s move on a second mask mandate paid off, or at the very least, brought Kansas closer to a statewide mask requirement.

As of Wednesday morning, at least 60 of the state’s 105 counties have a mask mandate, according to various maps.

“We had heard from a lot of people, including our own Senate President Susan Wagle, that if we were to put in place another executive order with face-covering protocols, that a number of counties that originally opted out will come back in,” Kelly said when she issued the new order on Nov. 18.

Counties without face-covering protocols and which opted out of the first mask mandate had until 12:01 a.m. on Wednesday to opt out again, or else the second one goes into effect automatically.

According to the Kansas Department of Emergency Management, at least 22 counties have added a mask mandate since Nov. 18.

This also doesn’t include cities who have created a mask mandate themselves in counties who have opted out.

This is a much different reaction from when the governor issued her first mask mandate at the start of the pandemic, when 80 counties had rejected it.

Part of that change in attitude could be due to the recent surge in COVID-19 cases in Kansas and across the nation.

“It’s difficult to pass a mandate that can’t be enforced, but at this time, we’ve moved to uncharted territory,” Jackson County Commissioner Janet Zwonitzer said when their mask mandate passed last week. “It concerns me that we can’t pinpoint where cases are coming from. That we have no idea concerns me a lot.”

Kansas reported 5,738 cases of COVID-19 since Monday, as well as 47 deaths and 144 hospitalizations in that timeframe.

As more and more counties moved to add a face covering requirement, however, not all did so without complaint.

Riley County was an example, where the health officer opted the county into the second mandate. But one county official was not happy about it.

“We’re getting real close to pre-World War II Germany, where you didn’t obey what the Führer wanted, you could be reported by your family, by your neighbor, by your friends because you are not participating like the government said you should,” said County Commissioner Marvin Rodriguez.

In Ellis County, the governor’s mask mandate went into effect after no action was taken by the county commission to formally opt out at a special meeting.

Commissioner Dustin Roths said he was outnumbered in pushing for the commission to opt out of the mandate.

“This was not a question of mask efficacy, it was a question of government mask mandates,” Roths wrote. “This was blown completely out of proportion by the media as they continue to be complicit in nearly everything this Governor desires.”

Some counties did opt out of the governor’s order but ended up creating mask requirements of their own instead.

Labbette County did just that, making it clear in its own order that it comes with no penalties for violations. In other words, it won’t be enforced.

That still didn’t satisfy Commissioner Lonnie Adis, the lone member to vote against the mandate.

Adis said in an interview that “it is better to ask” residents to wear masks and said it should not be a surprise that case counts were increasing.

“They are going to keep going up like the 1918 [Spanish] flu and how did that end?” he said. “It went through the system until there was no one left to affect.”

There were still counties that opted out again, such as Ford County, which had made it a point to defy the governor’s first mask mandate.

Technically, counties retain the ability to opt out anytime after Wednesday even after the mask mandate goes into effect.

But Kelly still said Wednesday at a press conference that she was pleased with the number of counties which opted for a mask order.

“It is certainly a step in the right direction,” she said.

She noted that the mandate took on a higher level of importance given the continued issue with hospital capacity in the state.

Data from the Kansas Hospital Association showed that only 22% of beds statewide were staffed and available as of Monday. In southwest Kansas, that number was 9%.

Wearing masks, Kelly said, would need to be combined with a more restrained Thanksgiving celebration.

She encouraged residents not to travel for the holiday and to wear a mask and socially distance if they had any events with family.

“I know you want this to be over ... But we cannot return to any semblance of normal until this virus is under control,” she said.

Gov. Laura Kelly talks about the 92% of counties in a mid to high transmission rate at Wednesday's press conference at the Statehouse with secretary of health and environment Lee Norman.