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Johnson County extends COVID-19 mask mandate, following pleas from school leaders

Kansas City Star logoKansas City Star 9/17/2020 By Sarah Ritter, The Kansas City Star

The Johnson County Board of Commissioners narrowly voted on Thursday to continue requiring face masks in public, after leaders of all six county school districts urged them in a letter to keep the order in place.

The 4-3 decision was made after a marathon, over-three-hour discussion where more than 50 residents spoke both for and against the mandate. Several residents, many of whom were not wearing masks, crowded outside of the room.

Whether to require masks — which health experts emphasize are proven to help mitigate spread of COVID-19 — has been a contentious debate since before they were first mandated in Johnson County in July.

On Wednesday, Robert Redfield, the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told lawmakers that face coverings are the most “powerful public health tool” the nation has against coronavirus. But President Donald Trump soon attempted to discredit those remarks.

The board’s vote reaffirms Gov. Laura Kelly’s statewide mask order, which the State Finance Council extended last week, along with a state of emergency proclamation, through Oct. 15. Counties have the power to issue less stringent restrictions.

Johnson County’s decision came as schools bring some students back to classrooms and as the county continues to report high spread of COVID-19, including a rising number of cases among younger residents. Superintendents and school board presidents from Johnson County’s six public school districts had signed a letter in support of the mandate.

“Our communities are desperate to have schools open, and students safely back in class. Unfortunately, the county has struggled to control the spread of the COVID-19 virus in the community, and this spread has made it difficult to make progress towards getting all students back in school,” they wrote in the letter, which was read aloud at the meeting by Shawnee Mission school board president Heather Ousley.

“There is a broad consensus in the medical and scientific community that wearing masks is critical to stopping the spread of the virus.”

As of Thursday afternoon, Johnson County had reported 9,740 cases, and 140 residents have died from COVID-19. Over the past 14 days, the percent of positive tests was 12.4%. County health officials have said that rate would need to be lower than 5% for them to recommend that schools fully reopen.

Last month, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas said the city will require face masks indoors until at least mid-January.

Johnson County commissioners have been continually split on whether to issue restrictions to mitigate the spread of coronavirus. Commissioner Mike Brown has been the most vocal opponent of the mask mandate, and last week, he vowed to make a motion at every weekly board meeting to end the order, pushing for residents to have a choice.

Brown, along with Commissioners Steve Klika and Michael Aschraft voted against the mandate. Klika, who is retiring this year, argued against the public “living in fear.” He has a hearing impediment and also said that he faces difficulties communicating with people while they wear masks.

“I have no problem in personal choice. But having the county mandate this, and putting a mandate on the public here that we can’t even enforce in reality. We can’t even enforce it,” Klika said. “This is government overreach. It’s time to back off.”

Some residents who spoke at the meeting said they already ignore the mask mandate.

“Your mandate only has power if people listen to it. I have never worn a mask, not once,” said Olathe resident Britney Valas. “Your mandate has not affected me personally, at all. It will not affect me for the rest of my life. My children, myself, never wear a mask. I don’t care about your mandate. I’m throwing my mask away.”

Chairman Ed Eilert and Commissioners Becky Fast, Janeé Hanzlick and Jim Allen supported requiring masks. They listened to the pleas of the county’s health officials, who emphasized that masks are the most accessible tool available for preventing spread of the virus.

Eilert said his decision was not only based on the advice of county health officials, but also the recommendation of national infectious disease experts and those at the AdventHealth, St. Luke’s and University of Kansas health systems.

“Those are the medical experts, who look at the infectious disease issue, who monitor and work on a daily basis with COVID-19, that I believe we should listen to,” Eilert said.

Several residents spoke in favor of the mask mandate. Kansas state Rep. Susan Ruiz, a Democrat, came to support the order, saying she was representing the Latino community and people of color who have been disproportionately affected by coronavirus.

Knowing that commissioners would be divided, some residents directly addressed Allen, asking him to vote against the mandate. Allen, who also is retiring from the board this year, has told The Star, and proved through his voting record, that he follows health officials’ advice when making such decisions.

“I’ve made thousands of votes as an elected official and to insinuate — I see the game that’s being played here — that you’ve got me figured supposedly as a swing vote. I’m an independent person and I will vote, and always vote, how I think is best for this county,” Allen said.

He argued that the mask mandate is an important tool to allow schools to fully open while preventing further spread of the virus among staff, students and the entire community.

“If we’re going to open the schools and get them back in the classroom, which I think is extremely important, we have to get the COVID-19 cases under control,” he said.

“The spread has not stopped.”

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©2020 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

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