TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly responded to surging coronavirus infection Wednesday with a statewide executive order on face coverings that grants county commissions the option of accepting the governor’s version, crafting their own standard or rejecting new limits entirely.
Counties would have one week to pass their own nuanced ordinance before automatic implementation of Kelly’s mask protocol, which would go into effect the day before Thanksgiving. There is concern among health professionals that gatherings during the holiday could turn into superspreader events, but those same officials insist people wear masks, wash hands and keep their distance if compelled to attend family events.
Kansas counties and cities that have implemented mask requirements will be exempted from Kelly’s revised executive order and can keep their existing rules, she said.
“We have reached a new stage in our fight with this virus, and how we choose to respond can turn the tide for our businesses, our hospitals and our schools,” Kelly said at the Capitol. “Republican and Democratic governors across the country have moved swiftly to enact policies to address the new surge of COVID cases. Thirty-six states now require face-coverings.”
Kelly said the latest version of her mask order was shared with Republican and Democratic leaders of the Legislature, and their lack of objection was viewed by the governor as consent as pandemic numbers implode in rural and urban areas of Kansas.
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican often critical of the governor’s work during the pandemic, said the executive order properly left face-covering decisions in the hands of local government officials. Sedgwick County, with more than 14,000 cases of COVID-19, trails only Johnson County in the number of people known to have contracted the virus since March.
“I have been a relentless advocate for local control and community leaders will still have the final say and will make their own decisions on what’s best for their constituents,” Wagle said. “I trust they will consider this proposal, listen to health care experts and their neighbors, and do what they think is best.”
Kelly signed a comparable mask order in July that lacked instructions for a local government vote, and nearly four of five counties determined masking was unwarranted to stem the tide of COVID-19.
In the four months since the governor issued her first mask order, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Kansas mushroomed by 113,000 and fatalities ballooned by 1,050.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported the first 18 days of November resulted in an additional 39,300 cases, 280 deaths and 660 hospitalizations.
During the news briefing Wednesday, Kelly said the surge in cases had taken a toll on overwhelmed health care professionals. And, she said, a critical COVID-19 patient in Concordia recently was transported three hours by ambulance to Omaha, Nebraska, because eight hospitals in Kansas were too full to accept new patients. Hospitals in Topeka and Wichita are at capacity, she said.
“As COVID-19 continues to spread through Kansas communities and hospitalizations increase at concerning rates, it is clear we must take action to protect our communities and our economy,” Kelly said. “Today’s actions are a bipartisan package of recommendations from legislators, health professionals and business leaders to increase participation in commonsense COVID-19 prevention practices.”
“Today’s order both ensures that I fulfill my responsibility to create a standard for the state of Kansas to follow, but also gives communities the ownership and flexibility to decide how best to implement it,” the governor said.
Officials in all 105 Kansas counties were allowed under a 2020 state law written by the Republican-controlled Legislature to ignore Kelly’s orders on masks applicable to people inside public spaces, receiving medical services or riding public transportation and in outdoor spaces where a 6-foot distance couldn’t be maintained.
In recent weeks, a handful of cities and counties have adopted more stringent rules as the number of infected Kansans raced higher.
Kansas will launch next week a $1.5 million public awareness campaign in collaboration with the Kansas Hospital Association, Kansas Chamber, Kansas Farm Bureau and other organizations to convince people to wear masks, social distance, wash hands, participate in voluntary testing and avoid mass gatherings.
In addition, the Kelly administration agreed to partner with The Leadership Center to mobilize its 12,000-member alumni base, to lead virtual non-partisan discussions across Kansas through December. The project will dramatically increase the number of pastors, coaches, neighborhood leaders, business owners, community officials and others with personal influence in the fight against coronavirus, she said.
Kelly has said for weeks that all options were on the table in terms of countering the influx of cases, hospitalizations and deaths. She assured Republican and Democratic legislative leaders that her administration hadn’t discussed a statewide order that would temporarily close businesses.
“We can avoid further damage to our economy and to Kansas by the simplest of measures — wearing a face-covering in public,” said House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, of Wichita. “I urge counties to craft and adopt protocols that suit their communities and needs.”
“The time for arguing and debating is long passed,” he added. “We must do the right thing for Kansas.”
A new report from the White House Coronavirus Task Force describes the spread of COVID-19 in Kansas as “exponential and unyielding.” The report recommended state officials improve enforcement of mask mandates and work with local influencers to spread the message about the importance of wearing a mask.