Kansas soon could have just 3 counties with mask orders

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MISSION — Fewer than five of Kansas’ 105 counties still require masks, and those still in place might not last much longer.

Johnson County, which is the state’s largest county with more than 600,000 residents, is set to consider Thursday whether to allow its mask order to expire. Health officials there have said they won’t resist dropping the requirement.

Such action would leave strong mask orders in place in just three counties — Riley County in the Manhattan area; Douglas County in the Lawrence area; and Wyandotte County in the Kansas City, Kan, area, newly released survey data from the Kansas Association of Counties and Kansas Health Institute suggests.

And commissioners in Riley County indicated at a meeting this month that they won’t seek to extend their order further after it expires in mid-May.

The decline has been steady. When the Kansas Association of Counties reached out to counties two weeks ago, Shawnee County in the Topeka area and Lyon County in the Emporia area also were listed as having mask mandates. But Shawnee County subsequently allowed its order to mostly expire, only requiring masks in some government buildings. And Lyon County switched its mandate to a recommendation.

As recently as February, 57 counties had mask mandates in place, past surveys have found.

The decline in mask orders sped up after lawmakers toppled Gov. Laura Kelly’s newly reissued order requiring them earlier this month.

Another issue that has counties shedding mask orders is a Kansas law that gives residents and businesses objecting to pandemic restrictions the right to trigger a lightning-fast 72-hour review by a judge. The burden of proof falls on officials to demonstrate that their rules protect public health in the least restrictive way possible.

Kimberly Qualls, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Association of Counties, also credited the vaccine rollout and the declining number of cases for the decline in mask orders.

“The vaccine has just made a huge difference,” she said.

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