Rather than writing citations, Parsons Police Chief Robert Spinks hopes community responsibility and individuals leading by example will be enough for most people to abide by a new face mask ordinance that will begin Thursday.

“This is less about police enforcement and more about ramping up community education and caring for our fellow friends, family, neighbors and co-workers,” Spinks said.

To help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the city commission approved an ordinance Monday that will require most people in places open to the public to wear face masks. While the Labette County Commission opted out of Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive order requiring masks, individual cities are able to mandate masks within their borders under the state constitution’s Home Rule article. Wichita also recently passed a similar ordinance.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt said last week that Kansans can’t be arrested for violating the governor’s order and that it could only be enforced by a lawsuit filed by a county or district attorney. However, on Thursday the Wichita Eagle reported that Schmidt’s office confirmed that cities have the authority to enforce their own mask ordinances.

While the ordinance took effect Thursday, no citations will be issued until at least July 23. Those first two weeks are instead aimed at education and voluntary compliance and also will give businesses time to prepare by obtaining masks for employees and customers if they choose. The city plans to run newspaper and radio ads and create door and window posters for businesses, Jim Zaleski, economic development director, said. There also could be brochures, mailers, rack cards, online information and informative cards created in the coming days and weeks.

When the education period ends, enforcement likely won’t be heavy-handed with police officers checking stores, churches, schools and manufacturing plants for violators. Spinks said the police department simply doesn’t have the resources for that, and he often says that he prefers to use the lowest level of enforcement to achieve the highest level of compliance.

“I’m hoping Parsons shows its concern for each other so that we don’t see a spike in COVID-19 growth here, in the region or in Kansas. Any proactive measures to reduce the risk of the virus spreading will help keep Kansas healthy and open for business,” Spinks said in a text message Wednesday.

Spinks said the police department receives about 17,000 calls annually. Each call receives a priority code and is dispatched in relation to available police resources. A person refusing to wear a mask in public may not reach the top of priorities at times. Spinks said the department is looking into an online process that could be used by complainants to report violators.

The city is helping businesses encourage compliance with the ordinance by providing face masks that can be given to the public. Zaleski said he will probably will order 15,000. As of 2 p.m. Wednesday, there were 19 businesses requesting a total of 3,600 masks. Zaleski said the city already had an order of 5,000 on hand for city employees, and some of those probably will be given to businesses.

“We want to make sure we’re giving them some resources and not just dropping it on them,” Zaleski said.

Zaleski said during Monday’s meeting that the face mask ordinance could throw a “giant, wet blanket on economic opportunity” in the city. He fears that some people won’t want to wear masks and choose to shop out of town instead. On Wednesday Zaleski said the ordinance is a double-edge sword because it will make other people feel it’s safe to shop in Parsons.

“We’re going to be the testing ground for how this will affect economies,” Zaleski said.

Zaleski said he doesn’t oppose mask-wearing and understands the public health benefits, but it’s his job to be concerned about the local economy.

Under the ordinance, businesses and other public places must post a sign informing the public that masks are required, and all employees must wear a mask in areas of the building open to the public. Businesses can be fined for failing to post signs.

Customers or other people in public places can be fined for refusing to wear a mask. Business owners also can ask those people to leave their buildings, but they won’t be required as the original ordinance stated. If they refuse to leave, they can be charged with trespassing.

There are some exemptions to the ordinance. Masks may be removed while consuming food or drinking a beverage at a restaurant and exercising in a gym as long as social distancing and disinfection are maintained. Settings with 10 or fewer people present that do not serve the public in person and areas without normal public access, such as semi-private offices and work spaces, do not require masks unless people can’t socially distance. Social distance is defined in the ordinance as maintaining at least 6 feet between individuals with only infrequent or incidental moments of closer proximity.

Reasonable accommodations may be made for people with disabling conditions that prevents them from wearing a mask. On Monday, City Attorney Ross Albertini explained that the Americans with Disabilities Act won’t allow officials to require people to state what their disability is.

Also, masks may be removed outdoors when social distancing is possible but must be worn at managed events when attendance and format prevent social distancing. On Monday Albertini said some outdoor events will rely on discretion when deciding on matters such as if people are only infrequently in close proximity. He used a baseball game as an example. While most players can socially distance, the umpire, catcher and batter are in close proximity.

Violators of the ordinance will at first be given a warning. Upon the second offense, a violator will be cited, but the ticket could be dismissed if the person agrees to pay a $15 fee. The third and subsequent violations could result in a $50 fine with $90 court costs.

The ordinance will expire on Oct. 1, but it could be renewed or revoked before then.

A face mask must entirely cover the mouth and nostrils of the wearer, must be securely affixed and securely fit the wearer. A tissue or napkin or anything else held in front of the face will not be considered a mask. Masks must be made of a flexible material that contours to the face and must be made of an opaque material that cannot be easily seen through.

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