Harvey County nullifies state mask order

Chad Frey
The Kansan

This content is being provided for free as a public service to our readers during the coronavirus outbreak. Please support local journalism by subscribing to The Newton Kansan online at https://www.thekansan.com/subscribenow.

The Harvey County Commission, which serves as the county board of health, passed a resolution Thursday during a special meeting that spurned an executive order of Gov. Laura Kelly requiring the use of masks in places that social distancing cannot be practiced.

“Following ... consultation and after reviewing other relevant facts, the Board of County Commissioners finds that implementation of the full scope of the provisions of the Governor’s Executive Order ... concerning the use of face masks in public, is not necessary to protect the public health and safety of the county.”

The resolution, numbered 2020-10, also stated the governor’s order is not enforceable.

The action came after a briefing by county health department officials, who encouraged the county to adopt guidelines requiring masks to be worn in situations where social distancing guidelines cannot be followed.

“On thing I have been frustrated is a lack of people wearing masks and taking neccissary precautions.“ said Dr. Doyle Detwiller, the county health doctor. ”... Trying to minimize the spread, wearing masks is simple. Granted, it is not 100% effective, but it helps contain droplets.“

“We are encouraging mask usage,” said Lynnette Redington, director of the Harvey County Health Department.

Voting unanimously, the commission chose to not mandate the use of facial masks across the county — and it was an issue that became a hot button issue over the course of the past few days.

Counties in the region that took similar action included Reno, Sedgwick, Butler, Marion and McPherson counties.

The governor announced her intentions on Monday, and the commission first discussed the issue a day later.

Commissioner Randy Hague said Thursday he has had about 200 messages in 72 hours about the executive order and whether the county should follow suit.

“A lot of them were businesses begging us to pass this,” Hague said. “I reminded them that they could do this on their own. A lot of the response was ’I don’t want the buck on my shoulders.’ Until we change these attitudes, we are not going to get control of this.”

He also spoke Thursday about those who would likely not wear a mask even if an order was put in place.

“On my way here today, I said to myself that’I am going to make a lot of people mad today regardless of how I go,” Hague said.

He was, he said, personally supportive of mask usage, but also did not believe that statistics show Harvey County should put an order in place. He pointed to statistics showing Harvey County with a relatively low infection rate compared to other counties, the state and the nation. He stated in the United States 1 out of 121 people have contracted COVID, with Kansas at 1 in 192 people. Sedgwick county was at 1 in 165. In Harvey County the rate is 1 in 833.

“I personally believe that if everyone in the world wear masks for a couple of weeks we would have this eradicated. The simple truth is that will not happen and we know that,” Hague said. “... My biggest thing is that if we go ahead and adopt the governor’s order, a large majority of the naysayers will not wear a mask. Responsible people are going to wear a mask regardless of what we do. The naysayers, an executive order, health order, will not change their mind.”

“People not wanting to along with a law, and a law like this, does not necessarily exempt us from saying we should not proceed,” Detwiller said.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Chip Westfall expressed concern about the capacity of Wichita hospitals to take Harvey County transfer patients.

“Hospital staff are concerned,” Westfall said. “... Wichita hospitals are full and we cannot transfer patients there.”

Saying Kansans must act to slow the spread of the coronavirus in communities, Gov. Laura Kelly on Thursday morning issued the executive order on masks she outlined earlier in the week.

Kelly’s order requiring masks to be worn in public spaces and places where social distancing can’t be maintained took effect at 12:01 a.m. Friday. It will remain in place until it is rescinded or the statewide state of disaster emergency expires, whichever is earlier.

“The last few months have presented many new challenges for Kansans, and all of us want to return to our normal lives and routines,” Kelly said in a news release. “Unfortunately, we have seen a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths across our state and our country. We must act.

“Viruses don’t stop at county lines. This order doesn’t change where you can go or what you can do. But wearing a mask is a simple and effective way to keep Kansans healthy and keep Kansas open for business.”

The state order requires Kansans to wear masks inside all public spaces — including workplace environments — and in situations where the recommended 6 feet of social distance can’t be maintained.

Children under the age of 5, those with medical conditions and others specifically outlined in the order are exempt from requirements. The order specifically notes that children 2 and under shouldn’t wear masks because of the risk of suffocation.

Others who are exempt from the order include those who are deaf or have difficulty communicating; restaurant patrons, provided they can adhere to social-distancing guidelines; athletes participating in a socially-distanced sporting activity; and people involved in court-related proceedings.

The county commission passed a resolution Tuesday that will require employees to wear masks anywhere they can not maintain social distancing, and anyone entering the entering the courthouse must wear a mask.

The Topeka Capital-Journal contributed to this report.