Local health order with mask requirement allowed to expire; officials advise unvaccinated people to continue wearing masks
photo by: Douglas County
Douglas County’s public health order that included mask requirements and capacity restrictions has been allowed to expire.
As part of the County Commission’s meeting Wednesday, public health officers discussed their proposal to allow the expiration of the health order. They also discussed their standing health guidelines, which provide recommendations for when masks should still be used and steps for certain businesses and organizations to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Dr. Thomas Marcellino, the county’s health officer, told the commission that low cases and the widespread availability of vaccines had put the county in a position to lift the order. He said every vaccine that’s been given has helped lower risk in the community.
“We’ve come to this point of the pandemic where I think the widespread availability of an efficacious vaccine (and) the local and national decline in case rates has now put our county in a position to lift our local order,” Marcellino said.
The change comes amid a recent update to CDC guidance, which Kansas’ governor has adopted, that says fully vaccinated people no longer have to wear masks indoors or outdoors or to physically distance, except in health care facilities, correctional facilities, homeless shelters and schools. Individual businesses can also still choose to require masks. In line with that guidance, Marcellino emphasized that it is still strongly recommended that everyone who is not fully vaccinated continue to wear a mask.
“That’s the key premise behind this recommendation to let the order expire,” Marcellino said. “And I know that puts the responsibility in the hands of the citizens. Douglas County has done a really good job up to this point, and I’m confident in our citizens.”
Due to difficulty telling who is vaccinated, the health guidelines still recommend that anyone 2 years and older wear a mask indoors, or outdoors when unable to maintain distance, in certain locations. Those include grocery and retail stores, libraries, restaurants and bars, parks and recreation facilities, and in conferences, meetings and events. For all those circumstances, the guidelines continue to recommend that indoor capacity be at 50%.
Health officers brought a recommendation to the commission last week to lift the health order, but commissioners ultimately decided to take no action, allowing the order to remain in place until its originally set expiration date of May 26. Commissioners had expressed concerns about lifting the order ahead of University of Kansas and high school graduation ceremonies, and while public school students who are not yet fully vaccinated were still finishing up classes. The commission also discussed the possibility of creating a health order with specific stipulations for those who cannot yet be vaccinated.
Marcellino said that in retrospect, he thought letting the order continue another week made a lot of sense. However, he said that given that children have a much lower risk of developing severe illness or dying from COVID-19, health officers were not proposing such an age-specific health order, though masks are still recommended for children who are not fully vaccinated.
Though school districts may look to the county for guidance on health requirements, schools must set their own mask rules and other health precautions. The Lawrence school district recently announced it would keep its mask requirement and other protocols in place through the summer.
As they did in the previous discussions of health orders, some community members at the meeting Wednesday spoke in opposition to masks, and some in opposition to vaccines.
Since the health order was already set to expire, it did not require a vote by the commission. Commission Chair Shannon Portillo said she appreciated the recommendation and encouraged people in the community to follow the recommendations from the health department.
Commission Vice Chair Shannon Reid and Commissioner Patrick Kelly both added that they appreciated keeping the order in place until its original expiration date of May 26 in order to get through the last week of school and graduations. Kelly said that a lot of work had gone into trying to make the right decisions for the community throughout the pandemic, and he wanted to recognize those efforts.
“As we look for our health order to expire, I would like us to just pause for a moment and consider all the work and effort that has been done by so many in the community to get us to this point,” Kelly said.