County opts out of governor’s new mask order

John Richmeier
This sign is posted at an entrance to the Leavenworth County Courthouse. Visitors to the courthouse are required to wear masks, but the County Commission voted Wednesday to exempt Leavenworth County from a new mask mandate issued by the governor.

Leavenworth County commissioners have opted out of a second mask mandate issued by the governor.

Commissioners voted 3-1 Wednesday to exempt Leavenworth County from Gov. Laura Kelly’s most recent mask order. Commissioner Vicky Kaaz voted against the motion. Commission Chairman Doug Smith was absent.

While the county is exempt from the governor’s order, separate mask orders approved for the cities of Leavenworth and Lansing will remain in effect in those cities.

A law passed in June during a special session of the Kansas Legislature allows county commissioners to issue health orders that are less stringent than a statewide executive order from the governor.

Commissioners first exempted the county from a statewide mask order in July. Last week, Kelly issued a new order requiring people to wear masks in public spaces. The new order was being applied to counties that opted out of the governor’s earlier order.

The new order went into effect at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday. Commissioners approved the exemption for Leavenworth County several hours later.

During Wednesday’s meeting, commissioners approved a county order that states “citizens of Leavenworth county should carefully exercise their free choice as to whether to wear any face masking and while this board encourages the wearing of face masking in appropriate circumstances, such wearing is not mandatory.”

“I don’t need any more government oversight than I already have personally,” Commissioner Chad Schimke said.

Schimke said he wants people to use common sense and do the right thing.

Kaaz read a prepared statement in which she argued in favor of keeping the governor’s order in place.

“I love my freedom as much as the next person but not when we choose to ignore the public safety and welfare of others,” she said.

Kaaz said she was saddened by the level of pushback against the mask order demonstrated by her fellow commissioners and some members of the public.

Kaaz said some people argue a mask order violates their rights as U.S. citizens. Kaaz said she disagrees.

She asked why the people who make this argument did not voluntarily agree to wear masks when they were only asked to do so instead of being ordered.

Kaaz argued people elected to look out for public health have chosen to ignore science and placed politics above the health of the community.

Commissioner Jeff Culbertson said commissioners are encouraging people to wear masks.

“But we can’t enforce a rule like this,” he said.

He argued the county should not have the rule in place if it cannot be enforced.

Commissioner Mike Stieben, who acted as temporary chairman Wednesday, accused the governor of playing politics. He said Kelly consistently has issued new executive orders and policies related to the pandemic shortly before holidays.

“That is not the way good public policy is done,” he said.

He said the governor should consult with local governments and health departments about how measures will be implemented.

Stieben said he believes all of the county commissioners want to follow the science related to the coronavirus.

He accused the Kansas Department of Health and Environment of publishing misleading graphs related to COVID-19.

“We’ve just had bad information from some of our leaders,” he said.

Stieben also argued the positivity rate of COVID-19 cases in Leavenworth County is similar to those in counties that have mask mandates.

Stieben also expressed concern about the governor’s order applying to churches in the county.

Ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, commissioners received a letter from Leavenworth County Health Officer Jamie Miller and Dr. Kathleen McBratney, the medical director for the Leavenworth County Health Department.

Their letter states the Leavenworth County medical community supports the utilization of masks to slow the spread of the virus.

“The fact before us is the immediate need to slow the spread of COVID-19,” Miller and McBratney wrote. “Unfortunately, until a vaccine is readily available we are faced with very few mitigation strategies to slow the spread.”

The letter states social distancing is the No. 1 strategy for the protection against COVID-19. The letter also calls wearing a mask a simple strategy that can help reduce the spread.

Before the vote, commissioners heard comments from five people who supported opting out of the governor’s order. Members of the public who spoke in favor of opting out included state Rep. David French, R-Lansing, and state Rep.-elect Pat Proctor, R-Leavenworth.

Last week, members of the Leavenworth City Commission approved an ordinance that requires people to wear masks in public spaces in the city.

On Tuesday, members of the Lansing City Council approved a similar ordinance for that city.

Twitter: @LVTNewsJohnR

In other business

The Leavenworth County Commission:

• Approved a committee’s recommendation for the allocation of funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act for grants to human service and cultural and tourism organizations in the county.