Mask-averse Kansas legislators test prowess of COVID-19 at official, social gatherings

Health officials wary of people massing without deference to virus

By: - January 16, 2021 9:55 am
Senate Majority Leader Gene Suellentrop, a Wichita Republican, didn't wear a face covering Friday at a hearing on a constitutional amendment on abortion. He says he generally wears a mask at the Capitol if requested by people. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

Senate Majority Leader Gene Suellentrop, a Wichita Republican, didn’t wear a face covering Friday at a hearing on a constitutional amendment on abortion. He says he generally wears a mask at the Capitol if requested by people. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Senate Majority Leader Gene Suellentrop doesn’t prefer to wear a mask in the Capitol as the COVID-19 pandemic rages outside confines of the limited-access building.

The Wichita Republican takes what might be considered a diplomatic approach to admonitions from public health officials that face coverings help limit spread of a virus that has killed at least 2 million worldwide, 389,000 in the United States, 3,500 in Kansas and 340 in his home county of Sedgwick. He usually opts not to wear one, as was the case Friday during the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing on abortion.

Rep. Michael Houser, a Columbus Republican, said Friday after a House committee hearing he prefers not to wear a mask during the COVID-19 pandemic. He said the approach reflects sentiment of many of his southeast Kansas constituents. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

“We want to make others feel comfortable around us. Anybody that would request that I wear a mask, I generally put it on,” Suellentrop said. “It’s about individual liberty. So, everybody, again needs to take their own measure of precaution.”

Use of masks is more prevalent in the House than in the Senate, but Columbus Rep. Michael Houser, who serves a rural district in Cherokee County, was among four state representatives who didn’t have on a mask Friday at a meeting of the 23-person Federal and State Affairs Committee. Others choosing not to sport a mask were GOP Reps. Francis Awerkamp of St. Marys, Randy Garber of Sabetha, and Trevor Jacobs of Fort Scott.

Houser said he subscribed to a philosophy of personal liberty, but also had breathing challenges that were complicated by masks. Cherokee County, which state health officials say has 16 fatalities linked to COVID-19, had a mask mandate until county commissioners put an end to the order Jan. 11. Perhaps 45% to 50% of people who live in the southeast Kansas county complied with the mask edict, Houser said.

“I choose not to wear a mask,” he said. “I’m pretty representative of my constituents. I’ve worn a mask three times since last March and that was every time I had a doctor appointment.”

Kansas and other states are in early stages of the vaccine rollout, which offers hope of a long-term answer to COVID-19. Health officials say 256,000 people in the state, or one of every 11, has contracted the virus since March. Thirty-nine of 105 Kansas counties have more than 1,000 positive cases. Eleven counties — Wyandotte, Shawnee, Sedgwick, Saline, Reno, Leavenworth, Johnson, Ford, Finney, Douglas and Butler — have recorded more than 5,000 each. Sedgwick and Johnson counties alone account for 90,000.


Truth Caucus dinner

House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, has urged the 125 House members to wear a mask. He worked to reorganize seating on the House floor to create social distancing, a move that left no room for the public to observe legislative action. He insisted committee rooms be adjusted so legislators sit about six feet apart, which also restricted public access.

Members uncomfortable with protocols have been able to participate in committee meetings online due to installation of new camera technology in statehouse rooms. COVID-19 testing has been made available to all legislators.

Senate President Ty Masterson, a Republican from Andover, decided against altering the seating arrangement for the 40 senators in the chamber to incorporate recommendations on physical distancing. He hasn’t pressured senators to wear a mask. On the first day of the 2021 legislative session Monday, about two dozen declined to wear one while on the Senate floor. After senators were sworn into office, family members were allowed to mingle with lawmakers in the Capitol’s most ornate space. Many guests in the chamber were without a mask.

Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, isn’t a stickler for masks on the Senate floor nor at gatherings outside the Capitol of Truth Caucus members such as himself amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The same approach was taken at a gathering of House and Senate Republicans on Monday night hosted by Masterson at a building acquired by a business partnership that includes Suellentrop. About 60 members and guests of the Truth Caucus, which views sanctity of life, constitutional liberties, limited government, traditional moral values and government transparency among its core beliefs, convened for dinner in the two-story building one block north of the Capitol to toast opening of the legislative session.

In Shawnee County, 10-person groups of people can sit together in restaurants or at private parties without social distancing. The limit for a single mass event is 10 such groups, or a total of 100 people. However, these groups of 10 are to be separated by six feet and aren’t supposed to mingle as if at a cocktail party. Currently, the county’s health department rates severity of the spread of coronavirus as “uncontrolled.”

Ashley Jones-Wisner, spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said the agency urged Kansans to adhere to public health recommendations, which include wearing masks, social distancing and avoiding mass gatherings.

“The duration of the gathering, combined with the number of individuals participating, increases the potential risk of infection and spread of COVID-19,” she said.

Gianfranco Pezzino, the former Shawnee County health officer, said the Senate swearing-in celebration and the social event among Truth Caucus loyalists “doesn’t sound like a brilliant idea” because people weren’t maintaining a solid mask firewall.

“Every time you bring people together, you increase the probability the virus will be transmitted,” Pezzino said. “And that is particularly true when you have a lot of virus in the community like we are having now. So, you put together a large group of people, chances are there’s somebody who’s got the virus.”


‘Turned around’

Republican Mike Petersen, a Wichita senator in the Truth Caucus, said he popped his head into the first-floor space where the Trust Caucus assembled but left shortly after arriving.

“I stopped in. It was crowded and I headed out. I just said, ‘Hi,’ and turned around,” Petersen said. “Being older, I try to avoid super big crowds. I’ll sit down at a table away from folks. I’m worried about people getting COVID. I don’t know that I’m as worried about their masks, if they’re six feet apart and following CDC guidelines.”

Another attendee, Winfield Sen. Larry Alley, said he didn’t have concern about the assembly of people in the Senate chamber or the Truth Caucus dinner.

“No, I don’t. I’ve had COVID,” said Alley, who realized he had it after Thanksgiving. He slept for two days and lost his sense of taste, but didn’t get a temperature or struggle to breathe. “In the social gatherings, like the Truth Caucus, they had a meal. Once you’re sitting down eating, it’s no different than a restaurant. That’s what I saw while I was there,” he said.

Winfield Sen. Larry Alley, left, and Sen. Mike Thompson of Shawnee are among legislators who don’t always wear anti-coronavirus masks at the Capitol. Alley said he contracted COVID-19 around Thanksgiving. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

On the Democratic side of the political aisle at the Capitol, there remains consternation about prevalence of mask wearing. Democrats appear to universally wear masks in public areas of the statehouse. There are the handful of GOP holdouts in the House. The Senate has a larger number of mask-averse members.

“I felt an urgent need to take a COVID-19 test at the Capitol because some of my legislative peers are still refusing to wear a mask,” said Rep. Gail Finney, a Wichita Democrat. “This environment has me little nervous due to my suppressed immune system.”

House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, another Democrat from Wichita, said he was disturbed with legislators who championed the pro-life Value Them Both constitutional amendment to maintain restrictions on abortion while expressing indifference to the health of colleagues by not wearing a mask.

“I just can’t understand some of the people up here,” Sawyer said. “They don’t care about other people’s health. What’s amazing to me is that some of these same people claim to be religious. It’s not just the mask. They don’t even want people to sit six feet apart. Part of me thinks it’s just politics. They’re playing to a certain group of people.”

Sawyer said risky behavior among legislators could jeopardize work of the 2021 Legislature — a reality given how the 2020 session was prematurely ended due to anxiety about the coronavirus.

He also said speed of action on tax and abortion measures in the first week of the current session offered a clue to the level of apprehension about the virus. GOP leaders in the House and Senate plan to quickly seek passage of a constitutional amendment on abortion and the first in a series of tax bills. Supporters require two-thirds majorities to put the constitutional amendment on a statewide ballot and the same veto-proof majorities to thwart objections by the governor on tax legislation.

“They’re worried about the votes,” Sawyer said. “They’ll have more of a problem with numbers if people have to quarantine or have COVID.”

Gov. Laura Kelly may have lessened impact of political attitudes about COVID-19 by diminishing public access to the Capitol for one week starting 5 p.m. Friday. She did so in conjunction with security concerns tied to the Jan. 20 inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden. Activity in the House and Senate can continue next week, but access to the building will be limited to the north visitor entrance and to people with business before the Legislature.


Hardened frustration

Sen. Rob Olson, an Olathe Republican, said he was frustrated by personal and economic implications of the coronavirus response by county and state officials. The reduced hours of operation for bars and pressure to wear a mask are signs of intrusive government, he said.

“I’m ready to get this state back open,” Olson said. “I’m ready to get rid of this mask. I’m willing to take the chance and a lot of my constituents are, too.”

Rep. Trevor Jacobs, Fort Scott Republican, is among House members who didn’t wear a mask Friday at a committee hearing at the Capitol. He was among four GOP lawmakers who chose not to wear one during the hearing. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

He said the level of cornavirus infection was exaggerated. He theorized some people testing positive for COVID-19 actually had a common cold.

“You don’t hear anybody talk about the common cold,” Olson said. “We’re in the Midwest. I wonder how many of the people who tested positive for COVID-19 actually really had the common cold? There’s definitely people sick with COVID-19. We need to take care of them people, but it’s not everybody and it’s not as big as they’re saying.”

Republican Sen. Dennis Pyle, who sits a few feet from Olson on the Senate floor, said he was among Kansans weary of the statewide disaster declaration inspired by the pandemic. The Hiawatha senator tried but failed to have the emergency declaration expire Jan. 26.

Instead, it was extended to March 31 to allow the Legislature time to revise state law on disasters to restrain the governor’s authority and amplify the role of legislators or local officials.

“There are a lot of people, in fact I know there are a lot of people, that believe they’re well-educated enough to understand whether they want to wear a mask, social distance and all the details that come along with COVID-19. They want to continue practicing health care based on their education and sources they go to and trust,” Pyle said.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.