Douglas County Commission requires masks for kids after hearing 4 hours of public comment from angry, jeering crowd

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

A crowd lines up to give public comment at the Douglas County Commission meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021. A number of attendees worried about a possible mask requirement for kids heckled and jeered county officials at the meeting that went on for more than four hours.

Amid four hours of public comment that included jeering and interruptions from a largely maskless crowd, Douglas County leaders have approved a health order that will require children who are not yet eligible for vaccination to wear a mask while indoors.

As part of their meeting Wednesday, the Douglas County Commission voted unanimously to approve a health order requiring children ages 2 to 12 to wear masks while in indoor public spaces, with several exceptions.

Some members of the crowd of about 75 people at the Douglas County Courthouse began heckling Commission Chair Shannon Portillo as soon as the meeting began, saying that they could not understand her with her mask on and telling her she should take it off. The crowd likewise interrupted Douglas County’s health officer, Dr. Thomas Marcellino, when he began trying to explain the reasoning for the order.

“What we’ve tried to do throughout the pandemic is to follow the science,” Marcellino began, before being drowned out momentarily by laughter and heckling from the crowd. One person called him a liar and disgusting, and some in the crowd started chanting “no more masks.”

Marcellino went on to say that the primary objective of the mask requirement was to prevent the transmission of the virus and to keep schools operating so kids could remain in school. He said that given the large number of cases in the community and the stress on the hospital, masks were one of the tools to slow down community transmission.

Fifty people spoke during in-person public comment at the courthouse, and all but a few spoke in opposition to the mask requirement. One public commenter compared health orders made during the pandemic to the Holocaust, another compared maskless children being excluded from activities to racial segregation, and another compared masks to making women wear burkas. Many commenters said masking children was “child abuse” and was causing children psychological harm and developmental delays. One man, yelling at Marcellino, said that masks would make children into psychopaths. Commissioners and public health officials were at times called stupid, evil and diabolical.

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

The Douglas County Commission discusses a proposed health order regarding masks at its meeting Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021. From left are commissioners Shannon Reid, Shannon Portillo and Patrick Kelly.

Others said children were at a low risk of getting seriously ill from the disease, and masks were not warranted. Some claimed masks did not prevent the spread of COVID-19, were potentially harmful to health and that mandates were a violation of their freedoms or a form of tyranny. A few parents said that if the mask requirement were approved, they would be taking their children out of school.

Gretchen Reed said that local school boards wrestled with the question of whether to require masks and their decisions should stand above those of the local health officer.

“Just because you guys don’t agree with it, doesn’t mean that you can mandate it and override their decisions,” Reed said.

Virginia Merritt, of Baldwin City, said that her son was one of only four kids in his class of 22 students that was wearing a mask. Merritt said that some parents also did not want to comply with testing and quarantine, and that a mask requirement provided an extra layer of protection.

“I’m concerned for him and the community as well,” Merritt said.

Once the commission moved to online public comment, the majority of those who provided comment were in favor of the mask requirement, though some questioned whether it should apply to children aged 2 to 5. Dorothy Daily said that she was concerned with the level of cases.

“We don’t have a lot of tools to use to keep unvaccinated kids safe,” Daily said. “Masks are one of those tools.”

Amid a rise in COVID-19 cases and the beginning of the school year, commissioners voiced interest in a potential mask requirement for children ages 2 to 12 in a discussion with public health leaders last week, as the Journal-World reported. Commissioners expressed concerns that not all school districts in Douglas County were requiring masks and specified that age group because it represents children who are recommended to wear masks and who are also not eligible for vaccination.

There are various exceptions to the proposed order, including youth with a medical condition, mental health condition or disability that prevents wearing a face covering; youth who are deaf or hard of hearing, or communicating with a person who is deaf or hard of hearing; youth engaged in religious services, ceremonies or activities; and youth who are seated at a restaurant or other establishment that offers food or beverage service, while they are eating or drinking.

The order begins at 12:01 a.m. on Thursday and will remain in effect through Sept. 22 unless otherwise rescinded or modified by the commission.


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