PAOLA — With COVID-19 cases on the rise, Miami County commissioners decided during a special meeting Monday, Nov. 23, to not opt out of Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive order and instead allow for her statewide mask mandate to take effect throughout Miami County.
By taking no official action at the meeting, the commissioners allowed Gov. Kelly’s mask mandate to begin at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 25.
It was a change of course for the commission, which back in July did decide to opt out of Gov. Kelly’s mask mandate. At that time, the commissioners agreed to strongly recommend that residents wear masks in public but not officially mandate it.
Since then, the cities of Paola, Osawatomie and Spring Hill have implemented their own mask mandates, but the city of Louisburg has not.
The issue came to the forefront again after Gov. Kelly issued another mask mandate executive order Wednesday, Nov. 18, that gave county commissions one week to craft and implement their own version of a face-covering ordinance that works for them and their communities. Counties that do not create their own ordinance will be automatically opted in to the state’s face-covering directive on Nov. 25.
Counties were given the option to opt out of the mask mandate by a bill that limited Kelly’s power, but since no action was taken, all areas of Miami County, including the unincorporated areas, will be under the statewide mask mandate beginning Nov. 25.
Although chairs were spaced out in an effort to create social distancing during Monday’s special meeting, nearly 50 people filled the Miami County Commission chambers to see what action might be taken.
Several of those were allowed to speak during the meeting, with some adamantly opposed to the mask mandate and others strongly supportive of it. In some ways it was a continuation of the commission’s regular meeting Wednesday, Nov. 18, during which the commissioners also heard from residents who spoke on both sides of the issue.
Haley Hammar of Louisburg said she is a nurse at the University of Kansas Hospital, and she implored the commissioners to not opt out of the statewide mask mandate.
“As health care workers, we are exhausted mentally and physically,” Hammar said. “We need our communities to respect the work we do by doing their part.”
Hammar said Louisburg does not have a mask mandate, and it’s clear when she goes out in the community that people aren’t willing to wear one based on a recommendation.
“People don’t do what’s right, they do what they want to do,” Hammar said.
Paola City Manager Sid Fleming also spoke in favor of the mask mandate, especially since he expects cases to get worse throughout the winter as more events are held indoors.
Mary Stephenson, who is a local criminal defense attorney, said nothing is more important to her than people’s rights, but she doesn’t see how wearing a mask violates those rights. She used a chart to illustrate the statistics related to DUI-related fatalities. She said the number of DUI deaths is a small percentage of the people who actually drive drunk, but laws and regulations are still in place to protect people. She then quoted the preamble to the United States Constitution, stating that masks “promote the general welfare.”
State Rep.-elect Samantha Poetter, a Paola Republican, said she is not a proponent of the mask mandate. She said it creates a slippery slope of precedent that could violate constitutional rights. Instead, she said the focus should be put on ensuring nursing homes and care facilities have adequate PPE and rapid response testing availability.
Dave Trabert of the Kansas Policy Institute said it’s false to say that COVID-19 cases have dropped in counties that have implemented mask mandates. He accused KDHE of manipulating the data to make it look like masks are more effective than they are, and he asked the commissioners to opt out of the mandate.
Louisburg resident Mike Martin said he has no respect for government mandates based on notions, not facts.
“It is not the responsibility of government to control my health,” Martin said.
Miami County resident Vickie Vetter-Scruggs agreed.
“Who should decide if you wear a mask, you or the government?” Vetter-Scruggs said.
Following the public debate, Miami County Commission Chairman Rob Roberts reviewed a few documents that were handed out to attendees, including a copy of Gov. Kelly’s executive order, a letter from Miami County Attorney Elizabeth Sweeney-Reeder stating that violations to such an executive order could lead to civil court actions and a maximum penalty of $2,500 per violation, and a letter from Miami County Health Officer Dr. Donald Banks stating that he supports the governor’s mask mandate.
After each commissioner spoke briefly regarding their stance on the issue, Commissioner Tyler Vaughan made a motion to opt out of the statewide mask mandate. He cited findings from the Kansas Policy Institute that question the effectiveness of masks, and he expressed concerns about the plan for enforcement being civil court lawsuits.
“Citizens will have to turn in citizens,” Vaughan said. “As divisive as this issue is, do you really want that happening in this county?”
Commissioner Danny Gallagher agreed and seconded the motion.
“It’s not enforceable, and I don’t want it to be enforceable,” Gallagher said.
Gallagher said Miami County’s numbers have been better than Johnson County, where there is a mask mandate, and cases continue to rise faster in counties that have mask mandates than in those that don’t.
“I have to say masks haven’t been very effective,” he said.
The other three commissioners all voted against the motion, causing it to fail 3-2.
Commissioner Roberts said he is not a fan of Gov. Kelly politically, but he agrees with the mandate because there is evidence that masks do work to some degree, and he continues to hear from health officials about the importance of wearing masks.
Commissioner Phil Dixon agreed.
“To me, it’s such a small thing to do to protect people,” Dixon said.
Commissioner George Pretz said it’s a difficult issue with very few definitive facts and a lot of myths, but he ultimately voted based on the value of public health, although he does have some concerns about enforcement and an unclear end date.
After the motion failed, no new motion was made, which means the statewide order will take effect in Miami County at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 25.
During the meeting, the commissioners also received a report from Mark Whelan, emergency management coordinator at the Miami County Sheriff’s Office, who gave them up-to-date COVID-19 numbers.
Whelan said that as of Monday afternoon, Miami County has had 898 cases, including more than 220 active cases. He also said there are still five active clusters, including one at the Osawatomie State Hospital.
The schools also have been impacted, as Whelan said quarantines implemented last week are still in effect related to a Louisburg High School gym class and Paola High School basketball tryouts.