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Commissioners Vote Against Implementing Mask Mandate For Sedgwick County

Stephan Bisaha
Kansas News Service/File photo

After a tense two hours of public comment, commissioners voted 3-2 to receive and file a proposed mask mandate, but not enact it.

Sedgwick County commissioners on Friday struck down a proposed mask mandate.

After listening to hours of public comment, the commission voted 3-2 to receive and file, but not enact, an order from county health officer Garold Minns — essentially ignoring the recommendation to reinstate a face mask requirement as a way to curb the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the area.

“I do respect what Dr. Minns ... his value that he brings with this recommended order. I respect it in that I really believe that we should receive and file his deal,” said Commission Chairman Pete Meitzner. “And we’ll continue to watch it.”

Minns issued the order earlier Friday. It would have required all residents to wear face coverings indoors, in outdoor spaces where social distancing isn’t possible, and on public transit. There were several exemptions, including for children under two years old, for people with certain medical conditions, and for people speaking at gatherings such as church, weddings and funerals.

Commissioner Jim Howell, who made the motion to receive the order, said masks are just a “Band-Aid.”

“I just can’t violate my principles of small government and personal responsibility,” he said. “At the end of the day, the government can’t solve COVID by masks.”

Commissioners Lacey Cruse and Sarah Lopez pushed for the mask mandate.

“We are here today because our medical community is asking us for help,” Cruse said.

The commission rescinded the county’s longstanding mask order in March after a change in state law could have left local governments more vulnerable to lawsuits over COVID-19 restrictions.

After cases fell during the spring and summer, they’re on the rise again, driven by the more contagious delta variant. The county’s positive test rate was at 7.9% on Friday, and hospitalizations were at “critical” level.

County manager Tom Stolz said in an interview before the commission meeting that about 180 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Thursday, and about a third of them were in intensive care.

“It’s causing great stress on our hospitals,” he said.

Speaking by phone during the meeting, Minns said without a higher vaccine rate, masks are the most effective tool available to curb the rise in COVID-19 cases.

“If we could get the vaccination rate high enough, we could stop this virus in its tracks,” he said. “But I am not confident that we can do that. I do not expect any entity to issue a vaccine mandate.

“So the question is, what tools do we have left to slow this delta strain down? … And that is the things we did before we had the vaccine.”

Nadya Faulx is KMUW's Digital News Editor and Reporter, which means she splits her time between working on-air and working online, managing news on KMUW.org, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. She joined KMUW in 2015 after working for a newspaper in western North Dakota. Before that she was a diversity intern at NPR in Washington, D.C.