TOPEKA — Health officials expressed concern Wednesday with potential implications of the tightly packed, mostly maskless GOP watch party on election night in downtown Topeka.
The Kansas Republican Party event at the Cyrus Hotel openly defied county mandates on social distancing and face coverings, and placed the GOP enthusiasts, as well as hotel employees and news reporters, at risk of contracting COVID-19. An outbreak from the event would stress an already overwhelmed health system.
“Any gathering where people do not follow the COVID protection measures should be concerning to our community,” said Dusty Nichols, director of Shawnee County Emergency Management. “Additionally, we are concerned that our local resources and the resources around us in different counties where we may rely on mutual aid are getting used at an alarming rate.”
Nichols urged those who attended the GOP watch party to monitor for symptoms of COVID-19.
Family and supporters of Roger Marshall cheered throughout the evening in close quarters inside the hotel ballroom, plied by liquor and jubilation over Marshall’s victory in the U.S. Senate race. They opened the evening by singing the national anthem and “God Bless America” and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. At Marshall’s urging for greater enthusiasm, the crowd performed an encore of “God Bless America.”
The crowd chanted “USA! USA!” before dissolving after Marshall’s victory speech.
“We have attempted to abide by social distancing guidelines and masks,” said Mike Kuckelman, chairman of the Kansas Republican Party, who declined to wear a mask during the event. “In a celebration, it’s hard to keep everyone mindful of that.”
Party officials placed placards on tables that advised six feet of separation, but they made no attempt to encourage social distancing or the wearing of masks.
“COVID-19 is always a concern, every day, everywhere you go,” Kuckelman said.
The numbers of sick, suffering and dead continue to multiply in Kansas. The Kansas Department for Health and Environment said 41 deaths, 91 hospitalizations and 2,988 infections have been reported to the agency between Monday and Wednesday.
The University of Kansas Health System reported 44 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 on Wednesday, beating the record of 40 set one day before. Doctors all over Kansas City were reporting record numbers, the organization said.
The spread of the virus also continues to accelerate in rural areas of the state that had been largely isolated from the pandemic.
At a news briefing Wednesday, Gov. Laura Kelly said the Kearny County Hospital in southwest Kansas had to transport a COVID-19 patient to Kansas City because it was the closest location with an available bed in an intensive care unit.
In total, 1,087 Kansans have died from COVID-19. Another 92,215 have been infected, which can cause long-term damage to multiple organ systems. The state’s rolling seven-day average for new cases continues to trend upward to new heights.
“These numbers continue to be a cause for concern,” Kelly said. “As I discussed last week, my staff is having ongoing conversations with legislative leadership to work with community leaders and stakeholders to increase mask usage.”
Health officials have pleaded with the public for compliance with basic preventative measures such as exercising proper hygiene and avoiding large gatherings and close contact with others. By wearing a mask, health officials stress, individuals can help lower the threat of transferring the virus to people around them.
“The more people an individual interacts with at a gathering and the longer the interaction lasts increases the risk of becoming infected and spreading COVID-19,” said Ashley Jones-Wisner, senior director of public affairs at KDHE. “Any time you have groups of people who are not wearing masks or practice social distancing, your risk for COVID-19 increases. If you factor in other activities or behaviors, such as singing or cheering, etc., the risk is higher.”
Republicans have embraced the idea that decisions about whether to follow health guidelines are a matter of personal freedom.
“I think that’s a personal choice. That’s if they want to do that,” said Rep. Willie Dove, a Republican from Bonner Springs who made a maskless appearance toward the end of the GOP watch party in Topeka.
“It’s your personal choice to wear that mask,” Dove said. “I have one on me. If you would ask me to wear a mask while we’re talking, absolutely. I respect that.”
Nichols, who serves as incident commander for Shawnee County’s COVID-19 response team, said the health department has limited authority to enforce social distancing and the wearing of masks in public places. The local agency can only ask the public, businesses and organizations for assistance in preventing the spread of COVID-19, he said.
“The Shawnee County Health Department is doing and has done everything within our authority as a public health agency,” Nichols said.