City commissioners discussed the future of Emporia’s existing mask ordinance with several community leaders during a study session at the Civic Auditorium Wednesday morning.
The city’s current mask order ends next week, at which time it will either be allowed to expire, renewed as is or re-adopted with additional changes to the document.
There wasn’t too much debate on the matter Wednesday, as multiple commissioners relayed their intention to renew the existing text for an additional 30 days, setting a projected runthrough date of Oct. 16. Emporia Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Case and Interim Chief of Police Ed Owens — who both attended the meeting in person — voiced their support for renewal, as well.
“To start, I just want to thank you for putting the mask order in place,” Case told commissioners. “It’s something we all have to work together on to make happen … and as a school we’re following [state] executive order 20-59 [which recommends masking] … One of the things we heard over and over again was that there was no way kids were going to wear masks and that we were going to have tons and tons of problems there. We’ve not had problems. The first four or five days of school have gone very well.”
When asked about the matter of the ordinance’s actual enforcement, Owens said it had done little to disrupt the day-to-day functions of officers.
“We have not had a lot of people calling in and complaining and saying, ‘Hey, someone’s over here not wearing a mask,’” he said. “In fact, I don’t think we’ve had one, to be honest with you. We’re more actively working with the Health Department to educate people.”
As with past discussions on the matter, County Health Officer Renee Hively and Flint Hills Community Health Center Environmental Services Director Jennifer Milburn were front and center to provide additional case information and metrics, with several commissioners asking for clarification on testing numbers and spread rates.
“With individual cases on basically any given day, we’d really like to see that number at or below five,” Millbern said. “That is a more controllable rate for us. If we can start to see only around two or three a day, that is when we start to see the outbreak and the community spread sort of fizzle … Anything over 10 is kind of worrisome for us ... If you look from the middle of July to now, you can see we have lots of days where we have over 10 cases diagnosed in the same day.”
Millbern cautioned commissioners to be mindful of the “entire story” that could be gathered from available data, referring to a distinct drop in positivity rate and an additional jump in new cases due to large-scale random testing at Emporia State and other organizations around town. She said that while local health organizations like FHCHC and Newman Regional Health only administer about 50 tests per week in drive-thru settings — thanks, in part, to necessary symptom requirements — ESU has the ability to offer tests to anyone who may have been exposed, with hundreds of tests performed simply for precautionary reasons.
When asked by commissioners, both Millbern and Hively admitted Lyon County’s case positivity rate — which currently sits at around 8% — would likely be much lower if health organizations had the ability to test each of the county’s more than 33,000 residents.
“One of the questions that I will need to be able to answer to the voters and to our constituents is what appears to be the lack of efficacy of masks when you look at our data,” said Commissioner Susan Brinkman. “I heard you guys point us back to June in how well we were doing, and now we’re not doing very well even though we’ve had four weeks of mask usage. I think it’s a valid question from our citizens and I think it deserves a better answer than, ‘Gosh, look at how much worse it could have been.’”
“That kind of stuff is very hard to plot,” Millbern suggested. “There’s not a data point to pull out there. It’s not in some spreadsheet somewhere … Definitely what we’ve noticed is … when those [positive] individuals were wearing masks and were around people wearing masks, we’re not seeing spread. We’re not seeing that positive person give it to other people. The majority of our cases right now are related to gatherings where there was no mask wearing. Now, that can vary. It’s not always a social gathering, and it doesn’t even have to be a large group... They could just be having a small dinner with five people.”
The future of Ordinance No. 24 — which was adopted Aug. 5 during a meeting of the city commission — will be voted on next Wednesday. Currently, the ordinance requires a mask or other face covering that covers both the nose and mouth to be worn in indoor and outdoor public spaces when social distancing is not possible. It applies to all businesses, organizations and non-profits located within city limits, meaning those entities must require all employees, visitors, customers, members and non-members to wear masks or face coverings. The ordinance does not include private residential or private office or workspaces that are closed to customers and public visitors.
During the meeting, city commissioners also:
Reviewed SPARKS/CARES Act funding purchases with City Consultant Jim Witt, agreeing to hold off on purchases including no-touch faucets and sinks in several city buildings. Witt was instead instructed to return to commissioners with information on the possibility of providing large-scale rapid testing for the city of Emporia. Witt will return with recommendations during the commission’s next study session on Sept. 23.