Not wanting to opt out of Gov. Laura Kelly’s mask mandate but also not wanting to follow it, the Labette County Commission created its own order on Monday.

The commission voted 2-1 to approve a resolution requiring masks to be worn in public places where there is more than just infrequent and incidental moments of contact or for other proper precautions to be taken such as social distancing or barriers. The resolution comes with no penalties for noncompliance, so there will be no enforcement of the order.

The commission’s action came after Labette Health CEO Brian Williams implored the commission in an email to do what is right as leaders. Last week, the county hospital, Williams said, had the only intensive care unit bed available in Kansas and Colorado that another small hospital could find.

The county resolution also states all businesses and organizations must require employees, customers, visitors and members of the public to wear masks. It spells out certain people who are exempt, such as those 5 and younger, athletes engaged in organized sports and people with a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a face covering. The Parsons Sun will publish the resolution as a legal notice in Wednesday’s edition.

With COVID-19 cases on a sharp rise in Kansas, Kelly issued an executive order last week mandating masks in public beginning Wednesday. As with her mask mandate earlier this year, counties could opt out if they chose. Counties with their own mask orders don’t need to comply with the governor’s order and don’t need to opt out either.

Commissioner Lonie Addis wanted to opt out.

“I don’t want to get into a situation to tell churches to wear masks for their congregation,” Addis said.

Addis’ motion to opt out early in Monday’s meeting, however, died for a lack of a second as Commissioners Fred Vail and Cole Proehl thought something needed to be done to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus. They approved the resolution after hours of discussion.

Addis said a mandate is not enforceable, and when the other two commissioners agreed not to make penalties for noncompliance, Addis questioned the point of the toothless resolution.

Proehl said he didn’t like the idea of the sheriff’s office having to take calls on the issue and writing tickets, but he thought a resolution was needed to show that the county commissioners encourage proactive measures to slow the spread of the virus. He maintained that the individual businesses, churches and other organizations still would be able to set their own rules regarding face coverings because the county’s resolution won’t be enforced.

Addis preferred to opt out of the governor’s order but encourage the public to wear masks through a policy statement or letter. Addis said the public is doing a good job already in wearing masks and taking precautions.

“I have confidence in the people of Labette County to do what’s right, and I don’t want to be a babysitter,” Addis said. “Let’s give the people of Labette County some credit for doing the right thing. I don’t want to put it in writing.”

Vail said the public looks to the county commissioners for direction, so they needed to make a statement about wearing masks and social distancing. He and Proehl thought the resolution was the best way to do that because it sends a stronger message.

“I think we need to slow this damn thing down,” Vail said of the spread of the virus.

Labette County Sheriff Darrin Eichinger also weighed in on the topic. He thought the commissioners would get more cooperation if they encouraged the public to wear masks instead of ordering them. 

Proehl mentioned Labette Health several times Monday and wanting to do something to help local health care providers fight the pandemic.

Williams said in his email that on Monday Labette Health’s intensive care unit was full. The hospital has expanded its surge capacity of beds and is struggling to find staff to care for patients who have been sent here from as far away as the Colorado border.

“We are attempting to do our part to support the national strategy related to the global pandemic,” Williams said in the email. “Please support your Governor at this time of great suffering. If you respect this hospital and its staff that should be reason enough to support this very logical mandate. Look to Australia for guidance and confirmation as last week they had zero cases in one day due to their mask mandate and limiting of travel.”

Also on Monday, Addis asked Labette County USD 506 Superintendent John Wyrick about rumors concerning schools closing for the rest of the semester. Wyrick attended the meeting.

Wyrick said Dr. Sonya Culver, the medical director for the county health department, has told superintendents they should look at the positivity rate at each school as an indicator for closing a building. A positivity rate of 8% to 14% could trigger a closing, but schools in USD 506 now have positivity rates of less than 0.5%.

“We believe what we have in place is helping prevent the spread,” Wyrick said.

Masks are required in all of the county’s schools.

The commissioners also gave approval for the purchase of 26,000 three-ply surgical masks for $23,140. They approved an upgrade in internet service through Sparklight to allow faster upload and download speeds for an additional $200 a month, bringing the total to $1,400 monthly. The commission also approved indigent defense contracts for 2021 for attorneys Douglas Steele and Amy Ross at $2,600 per month. Contracts for two other attorneys are expected soon.

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