Gov. Laura Kelly walks through the Capitol to a news conference July 29, 2021, with Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, to discuss the need for people to wear masks against the COVID-19 variant. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Senate President Ty Masterson warned state and federal guidance aimed at countering spread of a more hostile variant of COVID-19 could damage the state’s economic recovery and unnecessarily confuse Kansans who managed to reclaim normalcy in their lives.
Masterson, the Andover Republican who leads the Kansas Senate, said he considered “counterproductive” revised recommendations for avoiding spread of coronavirus offered by the administration of President Joe Biden, specifically medical adviser Anthony Fauci. He labeled “incoherent” Gov. Laura Kelly’s masking requirement for certain executive branch employees. Her instructions were bundled with a request for all Kansans to volunteer for vaccinations and for individuals in more than 80 counties sharply stricken by the Delta variant to consent to wearing a face covering.
“Kansans are now fearing a return to the malaise of mandates we emerged from months ago,” Masterson said. “Here, in Kansas, people have returned to normal and are going about their lives. Vaccines are widely available for those who want them. Government needs to stop telling people how to live. Rather, it is time for government to trust the people they serve.
“Kansans have made it clear that they choose freedom over ‘Faucism.’ The mandates and restrictions did not work before and they should not return, either at the state or local level,” Masterson said.
Senate Democratic Leader Dinah Sykes, of Lenexa, said Kelly made the prudent decision, along with government leaders across the country, to outline a revised strategy for protecting communities from spread of the Delta incarnation of coronavirus.
That advice reasonably included another urgent plea for individuals to get a free COVID-19 vaccination, she said.
“I echo her call on leaders in our state to stop spreading misinformation and stoking conspiracy theories about the vaccine,” Sykes said. “It is safe, effective and will save our fellow Kansans from illness and death. As a state, we’ve got to move on from the political fights surrounding this inconvenient but very real public health crisis. It’s time to grab an oar, make the necessary sacrifices, talk to our loved ones about getting vaccinated, and end this thing – once and for all.”
In a news conference Wednesday at the Capitol, Kelly said county or public school officials were the appropriate avenue for creation of public mandates in response to evolution of COVID-19. She wasn’t preparing to issue executive orders requiring Kansans to adopt prevention measures such as masks, mass gatherings or social distancing.
“We are really not focused on that at all,” the governor said. “We don’t want to spend a lot of energy thinking about that or diluting our resources in ways that will distract from getting those COVID shots in arms.”
Kelly said she would support private businesses in Kansas that independently adopted vaccination or testing requirements for employees.
The governor endorsed steps taken by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to recommend vaccinated and unvaccinated people wear masks indoors. She made use of her authority, in consultation with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, to require masks or other facial coverings for all state of Kansas employees and visitors to any state facility under jurisdiction of the governor starting 12:01 a.m. Monday. The directive applies in at least 84 Kansas counties identified by the CDC as being in the “high” or “substantial” level of community transmission of the coronavirus.
The masking requirement for executive branch staff — that doesn’t include state university personnel — applied to fully vaccinated individuals and the people who remained unvaccinated.
“I know the last year has been extraordinarily challenging, but the circumstances have changed considerably,” Kelly said. “The Delta variant has put the people of Kansas at another crossroads.”
Kelly said COVID-19 had largely transitioned to a self-inflicted malady because about half the state’s population had declined to accept safe, effective vaccines. The necessity of getting the vaccine is highlighted by research showing the Delta variant carried 1,000 times the viral load as the original version of COVID-19 that swept into Kansas in early 2020, she said.
“I strongly urge any Kansan who isn’t vaccinated to get one right away. That is the best way, maybe the only way, to stop the spread of COVID,” the Democratic governor said.
Kelly pointed to recent statements by Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, that encouraged Alabama residents to get coronavirus vaccinations. The southern state has the lowest vaccination rate in the nation. Ivey said: “It’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks, not the regular folks. It’s the unvaccinated folks that are letting us down.” More than 11,000 Alabama residents testing positive for COVID-19 had died during the pandemic, while Kansas’ tally exceeds 5,000.
Kelly said those were “strong words” from Ivey, but the Kansas governor expanded the thought to denounce elected officials who placed political considerations above public health interests of Kansas.
“Playing politics with this disease has caused confusion and ultimately suffering and death,” Kelly said. “We know that about every single Kansan who has COVID now and is in an intensive-care unit is unvaccinated. Deaths from the COVID Delta could largely have been avoided with a simple vaccine.”
Kris Kobach, a Republican candidate for attorney general who lost the governor’s race to Kelly in 2018, was unimpressed with the governor’s approach to the latest twist in the pandemic. He said he was opposed to “oppressive” government mandates at the state and local levels.
“Laura Kelly has assumed the role of state nanny, attempting to use local governments and school boards to control Kansans and restrict civil liberties. This push for mask mandates is about politics and power grabs — not science,” Kobach said.
During the news conference, Kelly said the Johnson County District Court judge’s finding that the Kansas Emergency Management Act adopted by the 2021 Legislature was unconstitutional had compelled the governor’s office to operate under the previous state law pending appeal. The ruling stemmed from a lawsuit challenging reforms woven into Senate Bill 40.
“From our perspective,” she said, “we’ve reverted back to pre-SB40.”
She said reliance on the previous law would allow the governor’s office to issue executive orders in response to natural disasters, but her primary interest in that power was to prepare for potential floods, tornadoes or wildfires.
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