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Sedgwick County overturns Gov. Kelly mask order despite reports COVID-19 'exploding'

Wichita eagle logo Wichita eagle 7/3/2020 By Dion Lefler and Chance Swaim, The Wichita Eagle

The Sedgwick County Commission has overturned an order by Gov. Laura Kelly to mandate use of protective face masks to fight the coronavirus, despite reports from their health officer and health director that COVID-19 cases are “exploding” in the Wichita area.

At present, the county has no regulations in place to combat the spread of the coronavirus, relying on businesses and the general public to act on their own initiative. The action taken Thursday continues that status quo.

Commission Chairman Pete Meitzner said he thinks the same results can be achieved by making the order a strong recommendation from the county instead of mandate.

He said he has “incredible confidence” in local businesses and residents to voluntarily use masks and social distancing to try to limit coronavirus spreading.

“Most everybody in our community is doing the very best they can” to protect themselves, their families and the community at large, he said.

Commissioner Lacey Cruse dissented, calling the governor’s order a “reasonable common sense step” to fight the virus and saying that the county’s current strong recommendations aren’t enough.

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“Our ‘strong recommendations’ have landed us over 100 new cases in 24 hours,” she said. “Our ‘strong recommendations’ now have completely overwhelmed our health department.”

The meeting started two hours after the county’s top health official reported that Wichita-area cases are rapidly rising and will continue to do so without intervention.

“In the last 24 hours we have added 170 cases,” Adrienne Byrne said. “So it is just exploding . . . Unless there’s some kind of intervention, we do not anticipate that number to decrease. We still have Fourth of July weekend to get through.”

Meitzner vowed he will monitor the situation and if things get much worse, “I will call another special meeting and I will totally reverse what I did today.”

Individual rights

Commissioners Jim Howell, David Dennis and Michael O’Donnell painted the issue as a matter of individual liberty and rights.

Dennis said “our job is to protect our liberty” and likened the mask mandate to Wichita’s widely ignored ban on fireworks that send sparks shooting more than 6 feet in the air.

“If you want to see a mandate that is unenforceable, you’ll see it this weekend,” he said.

Howell said he believes in “limited government and personal responsibility and that’s what this is all about.” He pointed out several areas where he disagreed with the governor’s order and suggested the commission take the time to rewrite it.

The 3-2 vote with Cruse and Howell opposed came shortly after Dr. Garold Minns, the county’s public health officer, said the county is beginning to see so many cases that it’s straining the county’s ability to trace people’s contacts when positive results arise. Family members and close co-workers are asked to quarantine when they’re exposed to someone who has the virus, because it can be spread even by people who have no symptoms.

Commissioners Howell and Dennis expressed frustration that they didn’t feel they’re getting enough information on hospitalizations and hospital capacity.

But Cruse read from an e-mail that commissioners received Thursday afternoon outlining hospital numbers. In that e-mail, Wesley Medical Center reported its COVID-19 cases are rising and “everyone needs to start wearing masks, starting immediately.”

Minns said it was unfortunate that masks weren’t required at the beginning of the pandemic, but the coronavirus was new and medical science was developing.

He said more recent research has shown masks are effective, “even though originally we pooh-poohed that idea.”

County Manager Tom Stolz said the hospitals are trying to cooperate with giving the county information, but it’s complicated. The problem isn’t necessarily the number of beds available, but the number of nurses to take care of sick people.

Minns had recommended increased mask usage, a ban on sports tournaments that draw out-of-state visitors to Wichita and limiting restaurants to 50% of their fire-code capacity.

That was Tuesday and Byrne said the COVID-19 situation has deteriorated since.

“From our standpoint that has even more reinforced the need for those recommendations,” she said.

Byrne’s report took place in an informal meeting Thursday afternoon, where county commissioners gathered local business leaders online to let them weigh in on the mask mandate that Gov. Kelly enacted Thursday by executive order.

The order requires the wearing of protective face coverings when shopping, working in a public-facing occupation and at most public gatherings.

Wichita business community supportive

Most of the business leaders on the call said they were poised to accept whatever decision the county made and a majority said they favored the governor’s order as a way to maintain public safety, as well as consistency and a level playing field.

Aaron Bastian, the CEO of Fidelity Bank, said his bank had to quarantine about 40 employees at its headquarters last week after an employee came down with COVID-19.

As of Tuesday, the day Kelly announced her intention to enact a mask mandate, Fidelity has been offering masks and requiring that all employees and customers wear them.

“It’s a public health issue,” Bastian said. “It’s no different than if I said you’ve got to wear a shirt or shoes to come in and do business with us.”

But restaurant industry leaders scoffed at the idea of mandating masks.

Freddy’s Frozen Custard co-founder Scott Redler said his restaurants go above and beyond to make sure safety measures are in place, but suggested the county recommend masks rather than make it mandatory, to avoid political controversy.

“None of us wants to be the mask police,” Redler said.

“We’re trying to get as many people as we can to wear masks and be safe,” Redler said. “And strongly suggesting, I think, accomplishes the same thing, or damn close, as mandating, without the controversial issues.”

John Arnold, president of the Kansas Restaurant Association and owner-manager of several Wichita restaurants including Deano’s, Greystone, and Oak and Pie, said his restaurants are unlikely to enforce any mask mandate.

“We have not policed our guests on using masks, and going forward I don’t think that we will,” Arnold said. “There doesn’t seem to be any enforcement out there by the higher ups.”

Enforcement of mask wearing

Several law enforcement organizations throughout the state, including the Attorney General’s Office, have said they won’t enforce Kelly’s order.

Tim Buchanan, president and CEO of Legend Senior Living, said “policing” safety measures is just part of doing business, pandemic or not.

“I think businesses have been in the business of enforcing government regulations for safety for a couple of generations now,” he said. “People in the restaurants in the kitchens have to wear hair nets. It’s not optional, it’s enforced by the establishment. People who work in a factory have to wear goggles; you can’t raise your hand and say, ‘I’m a free American, I don’t have to wear a goggle.’ If you don’t wear goggles, Spirit (AeroSystems) will ask you to leave the building.”

“It’s been too politicized and too much of a political statement and not enough conversation about the good of the public health,” he said.

While commissioners met, about a dozen masked protesters gathered outside the county courthouse to support the governor.

Activists Vernette Chance and Mary Dean organized the impromptu rally Thursday afternoon.

“We’ve just got to go with the science,” Chance said. “Our cases are on the rise and this is how we are going to get through it.”

Dean said, “there are travel bans on the United States across the world, because we’ve listened to politicians and not scientists.”

Chance said she hopes the masks can become a fashion statement, and catch on with a younger crowd.

“This is part of our new normal here,” she said. “And I hope people can embrace it. It’s not just about me me me. It’s got to be about, us, us, us.”

Byrne said Minns has been in touch with officials of Wichita’s largest hospital system, Ascension Via Christi, and been told they’re worried about the trend.

“They have plenty of beds available,” she said. “But they’re a little bit concerned and wanting to see something done.”

Byrne disputed that the rising number of cases is simply a result of more tests for COVID-19, a common argument raised against mandatory mask usage and other health rules to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

“When our numbers started to increase three weeks ago, our testing numbers had been consistent (with the) three or four weeks prior to that,” Byrne said. “Which led us to be able to say that our numbers increasing had a lot to do with lack of restrictions and people wanted to get back to normality and acting like, some people acting like, COVID isn’t part of our community still.”

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©2020 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.)

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