Two city commissioners are still leaning toward letting the mask mandate expire this month, but two others want it extended, setting up a potential stalemate during meetings that a fifth member won’t attend.
The commission discussed a possible extension of the ordinance requiring masks to be worn in public during a regular Monday evening meeting after first bringing it up in a Thursday work session.
The ordinance, which was approved on July 6, mandates people to wear masks in buildings accessible to the public. The ordinance also requires businesses and organizations to post a notice at their entrances that masks must be worn inside. Employers also must make their workers wear masks when they are in areas accessible to the public or when they can’t socially distance from each other. The ordinance has only been lightly enforced since its inception.
The commission extended the ordinance three times on unanimous votes, most recently in February. The ordinance is now set to expire on May 17, meaning there is one work session and one regular meeting in which commissioners could approve an extension. Mayor Tom Shaw said on Monday he won’t be in attendance at either session. He didn’t explain why. It’s possible the commission could call a special meeting when Shaw could be available, but no one mentioned that on Monday.
Commissioners Kevin Cruse and Verlyn Bolinger reasserted their positions that the commission should allow the mandate to expire, but Commissioners Leland Cruse and Jeff Perez are set to vote for an extension.
“I’m sorely disappointed in the vaccination rate in Labette County overall. I just don’t understand it. I don’t know why people are scared of these vaccines,” Crooks said.
He said only 30% of people in the county have been vaccinated, comparing that total to the 50% in Oklahoma. Crooks said of the about 200 million doses that have been given, there have been only a few cases of serious ill effects. Shaw added that even former President Donald Trump has encouraged people to get vaccinated. Crooks thinks the low vaccination rate is a reason to extend the ordinance.
“The science tells me that we should extend the mask mandate. It just does. I know that’s hugely unpopular,” Crooks said.
Perez said he would push to extend the ordinance.
“I mean, we’re not out of the woods. This isn’t over,” he said.
Bolinger countered that by saying that Labette County has only three current cases of COVID-19, but Shaw pointed out that there was a recent death.
Bolinger and the other commissioners mentioned hearing from a business owner who wanted the ordinance to be kept intact, but Bolinger said an exception could be made for that business and the Parsons Municipal Auditorium. The commissioners indicated the business owner has a similar setup as the auditorium but didn’t name the business. One business matching the description is the Parsons Theatre, which has been closed since March 2020 because of the pandemic.
Cruse said he doesn’t think the city needs to continue trying to force people to wear masks. Now that vaccines are widely available, he thinks it is time to allow people to make their personal choices.
“To me we’re at a point where it should be a personal option whether or not you get the vaccine, whether or not you wear a mask,” Cruse said.
Crooks said he may be willing to consider “fine tuning” the ordinance, but he doesn’t want to let it expire.
While Cruse said it’s a difficult decision for him, Perez said it’s easy because the community is not even close to reaching herd immunity.
Crooks pointed out that although most cities and counties are lifting their mandates or letting them expire, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends the wearing of masks.
Perez said people don’t seem to understand that the commissioners issued the mandate and voted to extend it as a public safety measure.
“It’s that simple,” Perez said.