Kansas House, Senate forge ahead without mask mandate covering legislators

photo by: Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector

Following the Kansas Senate’s swearing-in ceremony Monday the families of state legislators flooded the chamber to celebrate. There is no mask mandate applicable to the Senate chamber, and many in the throng chose not to wear one despite ongoing spread of COVID-19.

TOPEKA — Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau’s brother, Wichita retiree Randall Faust Jr., usually adhered to basic public health rules by wearing a face covering and practicing social distancing. But he let down his guard and set his mask aside while visiting an out-of-town relative.

And then Faust, 68, caught COVID-19. It killed him. The church trustee, the man who would stop to help stranded motorists or drive a niece to college in Texas, the man who was a lifelong guiding hand to his sister will be buried on Friday in Sedgwick County.

“It’s a great loss to me. It’s still unbelievable. It’s still gut-wrenching. I can’t believe I’m burying my brother,” said Faust-Goudeau, a Wichita Democrat. “For me, it’s not politics anymore. And it’s not procedure. And it’s not your rights to do whatever. My brother’s gone. He’s gone.”

photo by: Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector

Senate President Ty Masterson and Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau chat Monday at the Capitol on the first day of the 2021 session — when 165 elected officials from all over the state converged for a scheduled 90-day session despite a deadly pandemic.

When Faust-Goudeau returned to Topeka for the 2021 legislative session, she encountered a sobering sight: two dozen Republican lawmakers had chosen not to wear masks in the Senate chamber. Senate Democrats and a handful of Republicans did cover their faces.

Faust-Goudeau, wearing a white mask, watched as the oath of office was administered and family members flooded the chamber to honor the senators and take photos. Dozens of people — sans masks — packed together in celebration.

Faust-Goudeau said she’s no mandate zealot, but neither does she wish others to suffer unnecessary pain or death from the virus.

“I would just urge everybody to wear a mask. You can save a life. It’s just such an easy thing to do,” she said.

So far, COVID-19 has infected more than 247,000 Kansans and killed more than 3,250.

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Senate President Ty Masterson, a Wichita Republican who contracted the virus last year, says rigorous testing is the best strategy for confronting COVID-19.

He has invoked personal liberty interests of Kansans to deflect suggestions about making masks a requirement at the Capitol. He’s not convinced masks are an effective countermeasure to the virus, and he has previously said people in counties with and without mask mandates were coming down with COVID-19. The bottom line, he said: “It’s not a protection.”

Masterson acknowledged the human toll during brief remarks to colleagues after he was installed as Senate president.

“To those in our great chamber today who recently lost someone close to them, we are thinking about you and praying for you,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, a Lenexa Democrat, said more than 58,000 people, primarily front-line health workers, had been vaccinated in Kansas for COVID-19. It will be months before the vaccine reaches the masses, but Sykes said the goal for the Legislature should be to “turn the challenges that we face into opportunities to move our state forward.”

In the House chamber, where the vast majority of representatives Monday wore masks and practiced social distancing, House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer said former Salina Rep. Diana Dierks’ husband, Heinz, died Sunday from COVID-19. Dierks, a Republican who was first elected in 2012 and lost a reelection bid in 2020, also tested positive for the virus.

“One thing I will ask this body is that we do respect each other’s health,” said Sawyer, a Wichita Democrat. “These are tough times, unprecedented times. A lot of protocol has been put in place. I think it’s very important to do those simple little things like social distancing, wipe things down, use disinfectant, wear a mask. It’s not that big a sacrifice. We’re going to have some tough days ahead of us, but we will get through them.”

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The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people wear masks in public settings, including public transportation, at events and gatherings, and anywhere they expect to be around other people. The CDC also says that when people wear a mask, they “protect others as well as yourself. Masks work best when everyone wears one.”

In July, Gov. Laura Kelly issued a mask mandate covering all 105 counties in Kansas. The Legislature, however, ensured that counties could opt out of her pandemic-related executive orders, and a majority chose to sidestep the first mask directive. A surge in infection rates prompted the Democratic governor to issue a revised mask rule in November. County commissions retained the ability to opt out or write their own mask rules. Kelly recommended that counties require a face covering in indoor public spaces and in public spaces outdoors if social distancing wasn’t practical.

However, mask orders have continued to be derided as a sign of the coercive power of government. Mandates for face coverings have been characterized as evidence of citizen submission, a muzzle on dissent and a feature of political correctness.

Rep. Russ Jennings, a Republican from the southwest Kansas community of Lakin, said he wanted to be optimistic about moderating the spread of the virus at the Capitol. On the other hand, he knows people with the best intentions become infected.

“If one person gets sick out of this crowd, how many others have been exposed? How many are quarantined? It doesn’t take much to tip it to a point (where) things stop,” said Jennings, who wore a mask during the interview in the Statehouse hallway.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., an Olathe Republican who was hospitalized with COVID-19, said the University of Kansas Health System helped design strategies for modifying the Capitol ahead of the session. Legislative leadership authorized installation of technology to allow public streaming of meetings from 13 rooms at the Capitol. The system permits legislators to participate in committee meetings from their offices and enables the public to testify remotely.

House committee meetings and the floor voting process have been altered in ways that maintain public access to legislative activity, Ryckman said. The House requires committee documents to be accessible online. State representatives sit apart on the House floor, which necessitates some members to be assigned seating in the chamber’s galleries. Masks are provided to all House members, and COVID-19 testing is available for legislators and staff.

“Hopefully,” Ryckman said, “these added protocols will allow the legislative process to operate safely while still remaining accessible and transparent to the Kansans we’re here to serve.”

Tim Carpenter is a reporter for Kansas Reflector.


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