Kansas Senate leader had COVID-19, didn’t wear mask at hearing after recovery

By: - December 15, 2020 1:25 pm

Senate President Ty Masterson is prepared to lead efforts to pass again the anti-abortion constitutional amendment. The measure passed through the Senate 28-12 in 2020. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Kansas Senate President-elect Ty Masterson has had COVID-19 and told people at a legislative hearing at the Statehouse that his recovery from the illness makes it unnecessary for him to wear a mask in public.

The Republican from Andover, who believes mask requirements interfere with personal liberty, declined to say when and how he had been infected. His spokesman said Masterson posed no risk to those who were present at the Nov. 9 meeting where Masterson talked about his previously undisclosed illness.

Two members of the Legislative Task Force on Dyslexia confirmed comments made by Masterson at the hearing, after staff who were present voiced concerns this week to Kansas Reflector that he could still transmit the virus. Jim Porter, a member of the Kansas State Board of Education who serves as chairman of the task force, and Rep. Brenda Dietrich, a Topeka Republican, both heard Masterson say he already had COVID-19.

The remarks were not captured by the official audio archive, which starts with the opening of the meeting, but Porter said Masterson used the illness as an explanation for not wearing a mask. Social media photos show everyone but Masterson wearing a mask during the meeting.

Porter said he felt safe because everyone remained at least six feet apart throughout the meeting. He said he would have preferred Masterson to wear a mask, but he “didn’t make an issue of it.”

“At that point,” Porter said, “I thought to move the dyslexia task force ahead so that we can make sure kids have every possible opportunity was critically important. I didn’t want anything else to divert from that responsibility. And since I’m the chairman, I could have made an issue but I chose not to. So that’s on me.”

Dietrich, a former superintendent of Auburn-Washburn schools and now a senator-elect, said she always wears a mask in public but doesn’t feel it is her place to tell others what to do.

“This is one of those issues that is just very difficult for some folks,” Dietrich said. “But I see myself still as an educator, and you always set an example of the behavior you want others to emulate. And so I do think that it’s important that I continue to wear my mask.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates at least 50% of COVID-19 infections are transmitted from people who aren’t exhibiting symptoms, and that the use of cloth face masks reduces transmission by 50-70%.

Ashley Jones-Wisner, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said it was “ill advised” to set aside masks after recovering from COVID-19 because people can be re-infected.

“This is why we recommend that everyone, including people who have had the disease, continue wearing masks and practice physical distancing,” Jones-Wisner said.

Mike Pirner, the spokesman for Masterson, didn’t respond to questions about the senator’s illness or responsibility as a public figure to set a good example.

“During the meeting in question, Senator Masterson was following CDC guidelines by social distancing,” Pirner said. “He posed no risk to anyone present.”

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the Kansas Press Association’s journalist of the year. He has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He previously spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. A lifelong Kansan, he graduated from Emporia State University in 2004 as a Shepherd Scholar with a degree in English.