Editorial: County’s thought process on mask mandate is unsatisfying

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

Throughout this pandemic, it has been relatively easy to support the public health decisions made by the Douglas County Commission — until Wednesday’s decision to extend the county’s mask mandate.

County commissioners broke from their past practice of following the guidance of the true medical professionals — the county’s public health officials — and instead allowed their own opinions to guide a public health matter. The county’s public health officer had recommended allowing the mask mandate to expire and to replace it with a less restrictive version that would require masks in gatherings of 500 or more people.

Not once during this pandemic has this page urged noncompliance with a health order from the county. It won’t do so today, either. Douglas County residents and visitors should wear their masks. We all have a responsibility to follow the law, regardless of whether we agree with the principles or process that created it.

This mask issue has never been worthy of a revolution. However, it is worthy of reservation after Wednesday’s County Commission meeting.

The concern with the commission’s decision is pretty straightforward. The commission had a recommendation from the medical official whom they’ve placed their trust in on matters of public health. None of the three county commissioners has the experience of public health officer Dr. Thomas Marcellino — who deserves this community’s sincere thanks for his service — yet all three commissioners rejected his recommendation and went down their own path.

Commissioners Shannon Portillo and Shannon Reid offered an explanation that lifting the mask mandate would be unwise given that the county’s transmission indicator is still in code red, the highest of the three alert categories.

That is an unsatisfying explanation, given how little that code system has meant at previous points in the pandemic. As the Journal-World reported in October — before the omicron-fueled surge — community transmission levels had fallen to the point that the county was in code green, the lowest level of transmission.

Previous statements from health department leaders said the color coding system was created to give the public confidence about when to drop some precautions. Code green had long been listed as the point when the mask precaution could be safely dropped. When the community finally got to that level in October, the health professionals decided it still wasn’t the right time to drop the mask precautions.

The fact that health professionals decided to deviate from the original statements of the code system isn’t the point here. The opinions of health professionals should evolve as the conditions on the ground change. As a spokesman for the health department told the Journal-World in October: “The color-coding system was created pretty early on and lacks some context.”

But now the County Commission is going to use it? It appears the color-coding system is a single-function tool of convenience that you pull out of the box whenever you want to build some restrictions.

That’s the problem here. Wednesday’s action creates questions of trust for the still sizable portion of the population who haven’t politicized the issue of masks. That group wants to just live life and follow the advice of experts on this important health matter. Wednesday’s action created confusion on that front. County commissioners were well-intentioned in their decision. They were trying to do what they believed was best for the county. They shouldn’t be demonized over any of this.

But they should be questioned over whether they have thought broadly enough about this. We are at a stage where it is important to remember that America is dealing with two crises. The pandemic is still one of them, but the crisis that preceded it is an alarming lack of trust in government and institutions. It is very dangerous and every elected official has a responsibility to combat it.

Douglas County is fortunate that the crisis in trust is not as severe here as in other locations, but our public leaders must be vigilant to ensure that remains the case. Wednesday’s actions were not helpful in that fight.


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