House rams through pre-emptive resolution to derail new Kelly mask order

Democratic governor preparing to affirm face-covering directive

House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, center, D-Wichita, opposed a House resolution passed by the Republican majority urging rejection by the Legislature of any mask mandate issued by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, center, D-Wichita, opposed a House resolution passed by the Republican majority urging rejection by the Legislature of any mask mandate issued by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The Kansas House worked to get in front of any effort to extend statewide COVID-19 mask mandates Tuesday by adopting a resolution urging legislators to reject a planned move by Gov. Laura Kelly to renew an executive order advising Kansans to wear a face covering.

Kelly irritated some Kansans, especially Republican politicians, by first mandating Kansas wear a mask during the pandemic. Opposition to her executive directives on masks led to adoption of a state law leaving the final decision on face coverings to elected officials on each of the state’s 105 county commissions. The Democratic governor is expected to affirm a series of expiring executive orders, including one on masks applicable to public spaces and business settings, on April 1.

The date is significant because the Legislature is expected by then to have departed the Capitol for a break and any rebuttal to the governor would be left to the panel of House and Senate members that periodically convenes as the Legislative Coordinating Council. Based on a law signed last week by Kelly, the LCC would be authorized to take action in response to COVID-19 orders if the Legislature hadn’t been in session for at least three days.

Rep. Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa, said the resolution passed 84-39 didn’t suggest individuals shouldn’t be able to voluntarily wear a mask because the objective of the message was to embrace freedom, liberty and independence. He said previous executive orders restraining Kansans backfired by inciting people to resist public health advisories and harden opposition to policies useful in the pandemic.

“What we do not need are more statewide mandates,” Finch said. “They’re not as effective as working locally together. They’re not as effective in encouraging people and giving them information and empowering them to make wise decisions on their own.”

Kelly said in a statement threats by the Legislature to revoke a reissued order on mask protocol was unnecessary because legislators were well aware that county commissioners could opt out at any time.

“These political games have nothing to do with Kansans’ freedoms,” Kelly said.

While a cluster of House Republicans denounced use of masks as a method to restrain spread of the virus linked to the death of nearly 5,000 Kansans, a series of House Democrats opposed the resolution on health grounds.

“The last thing we want to do is spike the football on the five-yard line,” said House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita. “We are so close to defeating this COVID disease. We’ve made a lot of progress.”

Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, D-Kansas City, said she would presume health care and other front-line workers in the pandemic would urge government officials to sustain mask rules. She said opponents of masks were turning aside a modest technique intended to thwart spread of the virus.

“I see this resolution as being way too restrictive,” said Rep. Rui Xu, a Westwood Democrat concerned about rise of COVID-19 variants.

While the House was discussing the resolution, Shawnee County confirmed three cases of the B.1.1.7 variant through laboratories at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. These were the first cases of this variant to be identified in Shawnee County and among more than 30 cases of this variant identified across Kansas.

However, Salina Rep. Clarke Sanders said the House managed to continue its work without a mask mandate. The House did for about two months socially distance themselves on the House floor and in committee meetings. In addition, nearly all House members wore a mask at the request of House GOP leadership. On Tuesday, a majority of Democrats wore a face covering and about half of Republicans do likewise in the House.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, and Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, both have been infected by COVID-19 in addition to an unknown number of legislators in both parties during the past year.

“Mask mandates do not work,” said Sanders, a Republican. “For the most part, we have all been safe.”

Under the governor’s statewide directive expiring at the end of this month, Kansans were expected to wear a face covering unless the county commission chose to opt out of the order. Absent action by the county commission, Kelly’s order would require masks when inside any indoor public space, receiving services at a health facility, riding public transportation or outdoors in public spaces and unable to maintain a six-foot distance between individuals.

In terms of businesses, the governor’s expiring order directed businesses and organizations to require wearing of masks by workers in spaces visited by the public, where food was prepared or in rooms where the six-foot social distancing couldn’t be maintained.