4 in 10 Kansans live in counties that opted out of mask mandate

photo by: Associated Press

Lee Norman, Kansas secretary of health and environment, speaks about current numbers of COVID-19 cases Wednesday, July 8, 2020 during a press conference at the Kansas Statehouse. (Evert Nelson/The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP)

TOPEKA — Four in 10 Kansans live in counties that have overruled Gov. Laura Kelly’s statewide mask order even as coronavirus cases in the state soar.

More than 90 of the state’s 105 counties have opted out of the mandate issued last week under a new state law that allows local leaders to follow or discard Kelly’s pandemic-related executive orders.

“I’m not surprised. I think most of the local health officers aren’t, either, at this point. The mask issue has become political,” said Dennis Kriesel, director of the Kansas Association of Local Health Departments.

Six of the 10 counties with the most cases have decided against mandatory mask wearing. Nine of the 10 counties with the lowest rates of testing have also opted out, according to an analysis of public health data by The Kansas City Star and The Wichita Eagle.

Additionally, Ford, Seward and Finney counties, where the state’s meatpacking industry is concentrated, aren’t requiring masks even though about 5% of residents in each county have tested positive — by far the highest percentages in the state.

Many county officials have touted the importance of masks while choosing not to mandate them. Among them is Reno County Commissioner Ron Hirst, who readily acknowledges masks are a way to help slow the spread of the virus.

“But I don’t think that we can put a burden on our sheriff and our health department to try to even think about enforcing this,” he said at a July 2 meeting in which commissioners voted unanimously to repeal the mandate. “Therefore in my opinion, it’s up to the public to look out after their neighbors. And they should pay attention to this.”

Of the 10 counties with the most coronavirus cases, only Wyandotte, Johnson and Douglas counties let Kelly’s order stand. Another top 10 county, Shawnee, adopted its own mask order.

The others – Ford, Sedgwick, Finney, Leavenworth, Seward and Lyon – all opted out of the mandate. The six counties have collectively recorded more than 8,000 cases, representing 47% of the state’s total as of Monday.

The situation is complicated, though, in Sedgwick County, where health officer Garold Minns ordered a mask mandate on his own authority, effective Friday. County commissioners can overturn his decision, but some who voted against mandatory masks last week say conditions have changed and they’ll support Minns’ order if it comes back before them.

Meanwhile, the county seat of Wichita, which is the state’s largest city, passed its own mask order, so Minns’ directive would primarily affect Sedgwick’s outlying areas.

Other cities also have taken action, including Manhattan, home to Kansas State University, along with Winfield and Parsons.

Lee Norman, the state health officer, tweeted Tuesday that Kansas was “a shining example of success, only to squander it.” Kelly was the first governor in the country to close school buildings for the rest of the school year, and restrictions on gatherings and non-essential businesses cut the rate of spread.

But that advantage has largely evaporated. The Department of Health and Environment reported 17,618 cases as of Wednesday, an increase of 717 since Monday. The agency also reported 282 deaths, up two since Monday.

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