The Lyon County Commission opted to keep the county’s current Public Health Order in lieu of requiring residents to wear masks during a Thursday morning action session. The meeting was held the day before a statewide mandate that would require most Kansans to wear facial coverings in public spaces issued by Gov. Laura Kelly that is set to go into effect 12:01 a.m. Friday.
County Attorney Marc Goodman said that although commissioners did not vote on the matter, the county’s existing health order superseded the governor’s executive order.
The decision, Chairman Rollie Martin said, was based on the fact that the county’s current Public Health Order is not set to expire until July 9 and — at the time of the meeting — the commissioners had not yet seen the verbiage of the governor’s mandate. At this time, the county’s rate of infection has slowed even as a resurgence has been seen around the state.
Commissioners are expected to meet with other county agencies next week to work on the next health order.
Public Health Office Renee Hively told commissioners she endorsed the governor’s executive order as a tool to help mitigate the spread and avoid another shutdown. She recommended people mask up in public when social distancing at least 6-feet apart was not possible.
“We don’t have much left in our toolbox,” she said. “There’s social distancing and mask wearing. Those are the only things we have left until we have a cure. So, it’s prevention. I just ask that you take that into consideration. Those who can wear a mask should wear a mask. Those of us who can wear a mask, we can slow the spread of this.”
Hively said she believed Lyon County’s early mitigation strategies are what helped keep current numbers low. Jennifer Millbern, environmental health director and public health services director, told commissioners that when COVID-19 first appeared locally the major hubs for the disease were businesses. Now, with community spread, it’s harder to pinpoint where people are contracting it and that makes contact tracing difficult.
“It’s not related to the businesses,” she said. “Most of the time it’s related to what they are doing outside of work. Social gatherings, parties, going out to eat at restaurants and bars — that kind of thing.”
Community spread on a wider scale is troubling, she said.
Commissioner Scott Briggs asked what the criteria was for laundering non-disposable cloth masks and Hively said information would be distributed on Lyon County Public Health’s social media and web site. It is also available on the CDC’s web site.
Millbern said it was important to remember the difference between employer-required face masks and cloth face masks.
“When we are wearing cloth face coverings, it’s really to stop our respiratory droplets that potentially can contain virus from being spread in the air,” she said. “When we’re talking about the masks — the face coverings — that’s a bandana, a scarf. Even a dirty face covering is better than no face covering. We are really just trying to stop the spread of the virus from getting airborne.”
Martin said commissioners may call an emergency session if the situation changes to revisit the matter. At this time, however, the commission felt it was not necessary to enforce the full mandate.
“We are still going to be in the gathering of information process,” Martin said. “We just don’t have enough specific information [at this time.]”
Kelly’s mandate was signed Thursday morning and released to the public, and is set to remain in place until the order is rescinded or the current statewide state of disaster expires — whichever comes first.
“The last few months have presented many new challenges for Kansans, and all of us want to return to our normal lives and routines,” Kelly said in a written release. “Unfortunately, we have seen a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths across our state and our country. We must act. Viruses don’t stop at county lines. This order doesn’t change where you can go or what you can do. But wearing a mask is a simple and effective way to keep Kansans healthy and keep Kansas open for business.”
As expected, the order would require most Kansans to wear masks when inside any public space — including their workplace — or in situations where social distancing of 6 feet cannot be maintained. Guidance regarding specific places or situations in which masks are required is outlined within the order.
Still, even if the commission had decided to adopt Kelly’s mandate as stated, there would be some difficulties in enforcement.
According to a joint statement released by the Lyon County Attorney’s Office, Emporia Police Department and Lyon County Sheriff’s Office, Wednesday, a violation of the mandate is not a criminal offense.
“A violation of the Governor’s executive order or any other agency’s order concerning the wearing of masks or facial coverings, is NOT a criminal offense,” the statement read. “The public should NOT call 911 or the Emporia Police Department or the Lyon County Sheriff’s Office regarding persons not wearing masks or facial coverings. If anyone has a complaint regarding masks please call 620-208-3741.”
The Gazette spoke to Goodman earlier in the week about possible issues that could arise.
“On the state level, you have state statutes which have to be enacted by the legislature,” Goodman said in an earlier interview. “Those have the full force of law behind them. Below that — administratively — you have these orders. So, if you were ranking them, a state statute is a higher priority than the order, declaration, proclamation, mandate, resolution or whatever word you want to use to describe it.”
“Law enforcement doesn’t have to do it, so I would say it then falls to the health department. They would have to go out and identify who the people are that aren’t wearing a mask and be the controlling arm of this. I don’t even think they have the necessary staff available to do that. As a matter of physical safety, I also don’t think it would be very wise to just go up to people on the street and say, ‘I want your name and address so I can cite you for not wearing a mask.’ It all sounds funny and bit stupid, I know, but we’re a society based on laws. If things aren’t ironed out in some way, I think you’re asking people to enforce something very cumbersome and nearly impossible to enforce.”
Despite all the potential problems moving forward, Goodman said he believes the idea behind the order was made in good faith and with the safety of all Kansans in mind. He hopes community members remain considerate of others moving forward, especially those at higher risk for infection.
“We strongly, strongly, strongly recommend people wear masks in public places regardless of any order or mandate, because the data appears to suggest that they are helping stop the spread,” Goodman said. “Another aspect of that, though, is getting people proper masks and telling them how to properly wear and sanitize them between uses … There are all these back-end aspects of this that people aren’t talking about which could go a long way in stopping some of the arguing and confusion in the long run.”