OSWEGO — Labette County commissioners on Monday voted 2-1 to opt out of following Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive order on wearing face masks in public.
The decision followed a 30-minute discussion during which health care administrators and others urged commissioners to show leadership and follow Kelly’s order meant to combat the resurgence of COVID-19 cases in Kansas. Her mandate began Friday. However, the state’s 105 counties can opt out under state law and some counties have. Their names were listed before the commission took the 2-1 vote to ignore the mask order. Commissioner Doug Allen voted no on a resolution to opt out of following the executive order. Commissioners Lonie Addis and Fred Vail voted yes.
During the past two weeks, Kansas reported an average of 317 new coronavirus cases a day. That was nearly 15% higher than the 276 for the two weeks that ended Friday.
Dr. Wayne Gilmore, who serves on the Labette Health Board of Trustees and is an optometrist (Eyecare Associates of Parsons), spoke to commissioners, as did Labette Health CEO Brian Williams and Bowen Pharmacy owner Brian West. Labette County Health Department Administrator Lisa Stivers also spoke and read a statement from Dr. Sonya Culver, medical director for the Health Department. All wanted the commission to adopt Kelly’s mask order. All spoke through masks or temporarily removed them so their words were more clear. Addis didn’t wear a mask to the meeting, but Allen did until after the vote. Vail appeared by phone.
Gilmore said he thought the mask order is something citizens need. He considered it a health issue and not a political one. He tries to set an example for his children by wearing a mask to protect himself and others. Eyecare Associates was impacted by the statewide stay-at-home order from Kelly. The business shut down between March 18 and May 4, open only for emergencies. Once it reopened, the wearing of masks by everyone was required.
“I think it’s important for me as a business owner to protect my staff, and I feel like it’s an important thing to protect my patients,” Gilmore said.
Williams told commissioners he understood they had a tough decision. He mentioned speaking to all three of them on Friday and sending them information compiled by the hospital’s medical executives committee, which supports Kelly’s order for masks.
The science behind masks was a little gray in the beginning of the pandemic, he said, but doctors are now behind the practice.
He said wearing a mask is a small sacrifice for the greater community good. He also noted the crowded commission meeting room, with several people standing in the hallway because of no available seats. Most visitors in the public seating had masks on except county employees attending the discussion. If one person had the virus, he or she could spread it to others in the room without a mask, he said.
Williams said the hospital has finite resources for a local outbreak. It has five ICU beds and on Monday four of those were filled. There are eight to nine ventilators available, he said. Other states, including Arizona, are seeing 90% occupancy in hospitals because of virus surges. If that happens in Labette County, the hospital has limited personal protective equipment. If he has to close the hospital, “I will not be able to not furlough or lay people off. That will hurt every business in this county.”
He suggested if commissioners couldn’t support the science of mask wearing, perhaps they could support the economics. Masks can help the economy stay open.
“We don’t have the resources in rural America to take the risk. So we need to do this,” Williams said.
Addis said a mask order would be better coming from the federal government. Williams noted that President Trump doesn’t wear a mask and is setting a poor example.
“No matter how you vote today, there’s no right or wrong answer,” Williams said. He said the medical professions he represented at Monday’s meeting support mask wearing and are concerned about the long-term impact the virus will have on Americans’ health. “Their best advice right now is we should all wear masks.”
West, a pharmacist, said the coronavirus is contagious, more so than the flu, and its ability to spread is gaining strength as people refuse to wear masks, wash their hands and maintain social distancing.
“They’re absolutely rebelling against everything that we as far as the health care community have put into place because of the best knowledge that we have,” West said.
He said the only thing that matters to him is how to stop the virus. He said he’s in a population susceptible to the virus because of age and other factors.
While Labette County hasn’t experienced deaths because of the virus, he said that still could happen. Things take time to migrate to the Midwest and COVID-19 is doing that now. Case counts are growing in the county and in surrounding counties and states.
He said the mask will keep him safe and keep others safe until a vaccine for COVID-19 can be approved and distributed.
Allen said no one in the room thinks wearing a mask is a bad idea. Everyone wants to mitigate the virus. The question is how best to do that. People are getting fed up about being told to do this or don’t do that. These orders make them skeptical.
“The question I have is at what point do we quit dictating behaviors to people when they’re not going to follow them anyway?” Allen asked.
He said the governor’s order is not enforceable. The sheriff’s office cannot enforce it. Police cannot enforce it. The health department cannot enforce it. The county attorney may be able to enforce it.
“Is an order that’s not enforceable better than an order that is enforceable? Or is it better not to have anything and just work on people believing what we tell them and voluntarily doing what’s best for their community?” Allen asked. He sees both sides, but the governor’s order is overreach.
West said a strong recommendation carries weight and could increase mask wearing.
Stivers told commissioners that she is 100% behind masks.
“I believe in the science. I believe they work. I believe they help with the spread. My only issue with this is the enforceability,” she said.
She knows the health department phones will ring once a decision is made and want the staff to enforce mask wearing orders and they are not able.
Stivers also read a note from Culver in support of the mask order and the county following it.
A mask limits the rapid spread of the virus. She and her colleagues recommend face masks, physical distancing and hand hygiene. An outbreak would soon overwhelm Labette Health, she wrote. Other states are seeing these surges.
“Please don’t make the mistake of believing that this is a virus where 99% did not suffer,” Culver wrote.
Williams said commissioners are elected leaders.
“What you do today either gives credibility to what we will do or takes credibility away,” Williams said. “It has to start somewhere. Every county is looking for somebody to be the leader.”
Allen noted that one doesn’t have to drive far to reach a county where the governor’s order is not enforced.
Addis named the counties he knows that have voted not to follow the governor’s order: Montgomery, Neosho, Wilson, Woodson, McPherson, Russell, Clay, Miami, Jefferson, Morris, Nemaha, Osage, Pottawatomie, Shawee, Washington, Geary, Doniphan, Anderson and Sedgwick. Wyandotte and Johnson are following it.
“I don’t see a lot of people complying with the governor’s order,” Addis said.
Allen said if Parsons enacts an enforceable law, police can enforce it. He has two sons awaiting COVID-19 test results and he and his wife are susceptible to the disease. He was concerned that more requirements would further erode a distrustful public’s respect for the law.
Commissioners then voted on the resolution to opt out of enforcing the governor’s mask order, which passed 2-1.