TOPEKA — A council of top House and Senate legislators voted Thursday to revoke a new statewide executive order issued by Gov. Laura Kelly requiring people to wear a mask in public spaces and in business and medical settings unless local officials imposed an alternative response to the coronavirus.
Kelly warned members of the Republican-led Legislature of her intent to renew an expiring mask directive along with a dozen other orders tied to the COVID-19 pandemic. The House and Senate approved resolutions urging the Legislative Coordinating Council to derail the governor’s mask strategy.
The LCC split along party lines 5-2 with Republicans declaring no public health justification existed to force people to wear a mask and Democrats opposed to messaging that urged people to minimize lingering threat of the pandemic.
“People in each locality understand their situation more than anybody else,” said House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita. “This is the right call.”
House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, a Democrat from Wichita, said the statewide vaccination rate was around 14% and sending a signal that people could return to normal before rates increased significantly in Kansas would have lethal consequences.
“If people quit being careful,” Sawyer said, “cases are going to go up. More people are going to get sick. Unfortunately, some are going to die.”
Revocation of Executive Order 21-14 didn’t inhibit the ability of county governments to adopt mask rules for medical facilities, businesses, public spaces, mass transit or any other application. County commissions also possess the authority to opt out of the governor’s coronavirus orders.
Earlier Thursday, Kelly issued a statement outlining the series of renewed executive orders tied to COVID-19 that included protocol for wearing a mask. The Democratic governor signed orders extending directives on occupational licensing, liquor sales, foreclosures and evictions and coronavirus testing and vaccinations. The list includes orders on unemployment insurance, income tax withholding and issuance of driver licenses and identification cards.
Kelly said the reissued face-covering order was identical to the previous version and didn’t do anything to impede the ability of counties to develop a local version of the mask ordinance or opt out entirely.
“I’m disappointed that Republican leaders are more motivated by political publicity stunts than working together to protect Kansans and our economy,” Kelly said. “We know from Kansas-specific data that our all-of-the-above approach to stopping COVID-19 is working. I know that all of us are ready to get back to normal, but wearing a face-covering will help protect ourselves, our loved ones and our neighbors from the new COVID-19 strains that are wreaking havoc in other states.”
Without a doubt, the most politically controversial of Kelly’s orders was Executive Order 21-14. In the Legislature, the wearing of masks has become politicized with most Republicans declining to wear a mask at the Capitol and most Democrats adhering to guidance to wear one when around others.
Kelly’s roster of executive orders related to the pandemic came to an end Wednesday in compliance with Senate Bill 40, a measure signed into law by the governor and adopted by the Legislature to restrict her authority in a public health crisis. The law allowed Kelly to issue new executive orders linked to COVID-19, but those would be open to review by the full Legislature or the LCC. The LCC’s House and Senate members can take action whenever the Legislature was out of session.
Senate President Ty Masterson and House Speaker Ron Ryckman said they would work expeditiously with members of the LCC to rescind any Kelly directive on masks. The Legislature has adjourned until April 6.
Masterson, of Andover, said Kelly’s intention to reissue a mask order could be viewed as the “most elaborate April Fool’s joke I’ve ever seen.” He said a mask order by the Kansas governor would be “unduly burdensome and unnecessary, particularly from a statewide perspective.” Blocking the governor’s mask directive didn’t sever anyone’s right to wear a face covering, he said.
“This is a revocation of a statewide mandate. It does not prevent anybody from wearing a mask. The local controls are still in place,” Masterson said.
Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, D-Lenexa, said research demonstrated masks were useful in preventing people from contracting COVID-19. She said more aggressive variants of coronavirus were emerging that could be spread rapidly absent masks, social distancing and other precautions.
Knowing she would lose the LCC vote, Sykes made a plea for individuals to take care of themselves.
“We’re asking people to continue to take this seriously so that we don’t seek the spikes that we’re beginning to see across the rest of the United States and the world,” she said.
Under Kelly’s mask order, exceptions would have been made for children under age five, the deaf or hard of hearing, people with a medical, mental health or disability condition, individuals seated at a restaurant, legislators, athletes and persons who cannot wear one while safely performing work duties.
Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported 45 of the state’s 105 counties documented at least 1,000 cases of COVID-19 since March 2020. KDHE said 302,000 cases in Kansas have contributed to 9,700 hospitalizations and 4,913 deaths during the one-year pandemic.
Sen. Mary Ware, D-Wichita, said she found merit in wearing a mask because it could help shield other people from spread of a virus known to kill and trigger serious health challenges in some people.
“We are all sick to death of everything that COVID has brought,” she said. “And you know, I wear it constantly. Any time I am out of my house I have on a mask. Just to go into my apartment here I wear a mask. But the bottom line question for me is: How many deaths are acceptable? For me, one Kansan lost more is one too many.”
Sen. David Haley, a Democrat from Kansas City, Kansas, said the debate about masks should be less partisan and more about science of health emergencies.
“Sadly, it is become politicized,” Haley said. “We are not able to be a segregated society based on party affiliation, but we all have to live in this society together. Those who choose to follow protocols and public health protocols and those who do not equally affect and disaffect each other regardless of party affiliation. Therefore, I hope that we keep these protocols in place for the good not just of those who follow the science, but also for those who choose not to.”
The science shows cases of COVID-19 declining along with fatalities in Kansas, said Sen. Mark Steffen, a Hutchinson Republican. In addition, he said, masks were ineffective against the coronavirus.
“Masks — according to quality science, the systematically reviewed randomized controlled studies — really haven’t ever been anything more than a pacifier. But please, if it makes you more comfortable to wear a mask, please continue to do so. That is your prerogative, and we want you to do it if you feel better. But otherwise, I’d invite you to step forward, Kansas strong, and move ahead without a mask mandate,” Steffen said.