The Parsons mask mandate will continue at least until Dec. 7.
City commissioners on Monday evening unanimously approved an ordinance that extends the mandate to wear masks in public places. The original ordinance was set to expire on Oct. 1.
“Despite the fact that Parsons has carried on their back Labette County and people that feel they don’t need to wear a mask, we’ve shown improvement,” Mayor Jeff Perez said.
Perez shared figures with the rest of the commissioners that showed spikes in the number of positive coronavirus cases in neighboring Montgomery and Cherokee counties this summer and a leveling of case numbers in Labette County. Montgomery and Cherokee counties don’t have mask mandates. In Labette County, masks are required in public places only in Parsons.
The city commission approved the ordinance July 6 to slow the spread of COVID-19 during the pandemic. Under the ordinance, businesses and organizations must post signs at entrances warning that masks are required, and businesses must require workers to wear masks if they work in a space accessible by the public. Individuals must wear masks in businesses and other facilities open to the public.
Perez said in Labette County the trend of new cases has flat-lined. There were a couple of spikes in the first weeks of August, but since then the county has held steady in the number of active cases. He said the statistics show that the mask mandate has been effective in protecting the public.
“We are here to serve our public, and public safety is part of that responsibility,” he said.
Commissioner Tom Shaw said the United States recently surpassed 200,000 COVID-19 deaths. He noted that number represents over 30,000 more people than the total population of the nine-county Southeast Kansas area.
“Something as simple as wearing this mask might prevent someone else from dying. Come on, people. I mean, come on. Whether it’s an ordinance or it’s not an ordinance, it is really hard to make the argument that I have a right to willfully go around without the mask and risking exposure to someone when you realize what those numbers mean,” Shaw said.
Most of the commissioners said they’ve spoken to many people about the possible extension of the mask ordinance, and a large majority have favored continuing the mandate.
“There’s a really loud vocal few that are against it,” Commissioner Leland Crooks said.
Shaw said personally, he is not sure the ordinance is effective, but he thinks compliance could drop if it was not in place.
Commissioner Verlyn Bolinger said Cherokee County has almost doubled Labette County in case count even though the two counties are similar in population. He said Labette County is doing well.
“We’ve gone flat, and that’s amazing,” Commissioner Leland Crooks said.
Commissioner Kevin Cruse said the ordinance boils down to two things — prevention of COVID-19 can be accomplished simply by wearing masks and if wearing masks in public saves one life, it is worth it.
“We’re not out of the woods yet, and I don’t even know if we’ve hit the top of the hump yet. I really don’t,” Cruse said.
A couple of people from the public spoke about the ordinance on Monday.
Matt Hamilton asked what state statute or federal law gave the city the authority to mandate masks in public. City Attorney Ross Albertini explained that the Kansas Constitution allows municipalities to regulate the health and welfare of citizens in their jurisdictions, but Hamilton wanted to know a specific statute or law.
“The fact that you can’t answer that is disgusting,” he said.
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt has said local mask mandates are constitutional.
Hamilton said although only a couple voice their opinions at meetings, there is a “landslide” of people who are offended by the commission’s mandate.
Hamilton also said some people have anxiety and can’t wear masks.
“Shame on you for not giving that any consideration. People commit suicide over these things. They will,” Hamilton said.
Ryan Robertson, a 2019 city commission candidate, asked when the commission will let the mandate expire. Perez said he can’t say this far in advance if it will be in December or beyond. The transmissibility ratio would have to fall below 1 at least, Perez said. Robertson asked if the commission would consider letting the ordinance expire if it fell below 1 locally.
“It would be a positive indicator, that’s for sure,” Crooks said.
When Robertson asked, Perez said he wouldn’t consider lifting the mandate early, even if the transmissibility ratio dips below 1.
Police Chief Robert Spinks said the police department has taken a light approach to enforcing the ordinance. He estimated compliance within the business community has reached nearly 94%, with just a couple still refusing to comply. The police department has issued fewer than 24 verbal warnings, responded to a “handful” of calls from the public about violations and issued one citation.
“I do appreciate there is some leniency on this,” Shaw said.
Spinks said as is the case with most laws, the police department is not taking a zero-tolerance approach.