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Wichita Imposes Mask Mandate As Kansas Sees COVID-19 Spike

Ann Lo, flickr Creative Commons

Kansas reported another big increase in confirmed coronavirus cases Friday, capping its worst two-week spike since the pandemic began and coming as a statewide mask mandate from the governor took effect.

The state Department of Health and Environment reported that Kansas has had 15,919 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, up 929, or 6.2% since only Wednesday. Kansas also has reported 277 COVID-19-related deaths, up five in two days.

Gov. Laura Kelly issued an executive order Thursday requiring people to wear masks in public and in their workplaces because of a surge in cases, and it took effect at 12:01 a.m. Friday. She and her top public health administrator said that if the state doesn’t reverse the surge, it won’t be safe to reopen public schools for the state’s 519,000 K-12 students in August.

Kansas reported an average of 276 new coronavirus cases a day over the past two weeks — the largest 14-day average since the state confirmed its first case March 7. The previous peak was 271 on May 11.

Kelly called the surge in cases in Kansas and across the nation “alarming," adding in an emailed statement, “Until there is a vaccine, masks are our best defense to help keep our families and neighbors healthy and keep Kansas open for business.”

The state released its latest figures shortly before the City Council in Wichita, Kansas’ largest city, met to consider a mask requirement. It voted 4-3 to impose a mandate.

Wichita Mayor Brandon Whipple pushed for rule for the city a day after its home county rejected a mandate. The Sedgwick County Commission voted 3-2 on Thursday to strongly recommend but not require that local residents follow Kelly’s order.

“I would have been a bad mayor if we didn't do everything we could to protect our city," Whipple said as the council's nearly four-hour meeting concluded.

Kansas has reported an increase of 6,701, or nearly 73% in confirmed coronavirus cases since Kelly lifted statewide restrictions on businesses and public gatherings on May 26. The Democratic governor's decision left the decision on the rules to the state's 105 counties and came after weeks of complaints from the Republican-controlled Legislature that she was moving too slowly to reopen the state's economy.

Kelly's mask order comes with no criminal penalties for people who don't wear masks, but violators face a potential civil fine of up to $2,500 if local prosecutors decide to go to court. She and other state officials don't expect the order to be vigorously enforced but hope it will encourage people to wear masks.

Whipple was a Democratic Kansas House member before being elected mayor last year. Among the biggest critics of Kelly's mask order are two conservative Republican legislative leaders from Wichita, Senate President Susan Wagle and House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins.

During their meeting Thursday afternoon, several Sedgwick County commissioners questioned whether a mask mandate could be enforced and suggested that educating residents about the importance of wearing masks would be the better tactic.

“No one wants to be the mask police,” said Commissioner David Dennis, a Republican.

Johnson County and Wyandotte counties in the Kansas City area are mandating mask wearing, as is Douglas County in northeast Kansas, home to the main University of Kansas campus.

Counties can opt out of Kelly's mask order under a new pandemic law that took effect in June and resulted from a compromise between Kelly and lawmakers. But the state constitution gives cities broad power to set their own policies, independent of counties or the state.

Nearly 76% of Sedgwick County’s 516,000 residents, some 399,000 people, live in Wichita. The county’s confirmed coronavirus cases have nearly tripled since May 26, from 537 to 1,564, with 196 new reported cases in the past two days alone.

The governor’s order says Kansas residents must wear masks in indoor public spaces, while seeking health care or using public transportation. It also says people must wear them outdoors in public when they can’t remain at least 6 feet (1.8 meters) from others.

Businesses must require employees to wear masks in places frequented by the public or if they prepare food.

The requirement would not apply to children under 6, the deaf, or people with medical conditions that make breathing through a mask difficult or who can’t remove a mask without assistance.

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