TOPEKA — Wichita retiree Randall Faust Jr. usually adhered to basic public health rules by wearing a face covering and socially distancing, but let down his guard while visiting with an out-of-town relative.
He set his mask aside in that decisive moment. Faust, 68, caught COVID-19. It killed him. The church trustee, the guy who would stop to help stranded motorists or drive a niece to college in Texas, the man who was a lifelong guiding hand to his sister will be buried 2 p.m. Jan. 15 in Sedgwick County.
“It’s a great loss to me. It’s still unbelievable. It’s still gut-wrenching. I can’t believe I’m burying my brother,” said Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, a Wichita Democrat. “For me, it’s not politics anymore. And it’s not procedure. And it’s not your rights to do whatever. My brother’s gone. He’s gone.”
Republican leadership of the Kansas Legislature adopted a series of protocol changes to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, which has caught 247,000 Kansans in its web and snuffed out the life of more than 3,250. The first day of the 2021 legislative session Monday put on display — profoundly in the Senate — what a superspreader event hosted by elected officials might look like.
On the Senate floor, two dozen Republican members chose not to wear a mask. Senate Democrats and a handful of Republicans did. Once formalities of the oath of office were administered, family members flooded the chamber to honor senators and snag photographic momentoes. The images showed dozens of people sans mask packed together in celebration.
Faust-Goudeau, wearing a white mask, took it all in. She’s no mandate zealot, but neither does she wish others to suffer pain of unnecessary death from such an ugly plague.
“I would just urge everybody to wear a mask. You can save a life. It’s just such an easy thing to do,” she said.
Senate President Ty Masterson, a Wichita Republican who contracted the virus last year, said rigorous testing was the best strategy for confronting COVID-19.
He has invoked personal liberty interests of Kansans to deflect suggestions about adoption of a rule making mask wearing a requirement at the Capitol. He’s not convinced masks are an effective deterrent, previously saying people in counties with and without mask mandates were coming down with COVID-19. The bottom line, he said: “It’s not a protection.”
Masterson acknowledged the human toll among families in mourning during brief remarks to colleagues after installed as Senate president.
“To those in our great chamber today who recently lost someone close to them,” he said, “we are thinking about you and praying for you.”
Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, a Lenexa Democrat, said more than 58,000 people, primarily frontline health workers, had been vaccinated in Kansas for COVID-19. It will be months before the vaccine reaches the masses, but Sykes said the goal for the Legislature should be to “turn the challenges that we face into opportunities to move our state forward.”
In the House chamber, where the vast majority of representatives Monday wore a mask and practiced social distancing, House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer said former Salina Rep. Diana Dierks’ husband, Heinz, died Sunday from COVID-19. Dierks, a Republican who served from 2013 until defeated for re-election in 2020, also tested positive for the virus.
“One thing I will ask this body, is that we do respect each other’s health,” said Sawyer, a Wichita Democrat. “These are tough times, unprecedented times. A lot of protocol has been put in place. I think it’s very important to do those simple, little things like social distancing, wipe things down, use disenfectant, wear a mask. It’s not that big a sacrifice. We’re going to have some tough days ahead of us, but we will get through them.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people wear masks in public settings, including public transportation, at events and gatherings, and anywhere individuals expect to be around other people. The CDC also says that when people wear a mask they “protect others as well as yourself. Masks work best when everyone wears one.”
In July, Gov. Laura Kelly issued a mask mandate covering all 105 counties. The Legislature made certain counties could opt out of her executive orders in the pandemic, and a majority choose to sidestep the first mask directive. A surge in infection prompted the Democratic governor to issue a revised mask rule in November. County commissions retained the ability to opt out or write their own mask benchmark. In the alternative, Kelly recommended counties require a face covering in indoor public spaces and in public spaces outdoors if social distancing wasn’t practical.
However, mask orders have continued to be derided as a sign of the coercive power of government. Mandates for face coverings have been characterized as evidence of citizen submission, a muzzle on dissent and a feature of political correctness.
Rep. Russ Jennings, a Republican from the southwest Kansas community of Lakin, said he wanted to be optimistic about moderating spread of the virus at the Capitol. On the other hand, he knows people with the best intentions become infected.
“If one person gets sick out of this crowd, how many others have been exposed? How many are quarantined? It doesn’t take much to tip it to a point things stop,” said Jennings, who wore a mask during the statehouse hallway interview.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican who was hospitalized with COVID-19, said the University of Kansas Health System helped design strategies for modifying the Capitol ahead of the session. Legislative leadership authorized installation of technology to allow public streaming of meetings from 13 rooms at the Capitol. The system permits legislators to participate in committee from their offices and enables the public to testify remotely.
House committee meetings and the floor voting process have been altered in ways that maintain public access to legislative activity, Ryckman said. The House requires committee documents to be accessible online. State representatives sit apart on the House floor, which necessitates some members to be assigned seating in the chamber’s galleries. Masks are provided to all House members and COVID-19 testing is available for legislators and staff.
“Hopefully,” Ryckman said, “these added protocols will allow the legislative process to operate safely while still remaining accessible and transparent to the Kansans we’re here to serve.”