TOPEKA — Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and top Republican legislators agreed Tuesday to try for now to encourage Kansas counties to adopt local mask mandates rather than consider a statewide rule as the state experiences its biggest surge in new coronavirus cases of the pandemic.
Kelly had a private Zoom meeting with eight leaders of the GOP-controlled Legislature, six of them Republicans, and participants said afterward that they discussed encouraging greater mask use. The state health department reported Monday that the state's rolling seven-day average for new cases set a record of 815 a day for the seven days ending Monday.
Kelly issued a statewide mask mandate July 2, but a state law enacted only the month before allowed the state’s 105 counties to opt out, and most did. She said last week that she wanted to work with top Republican lawmakers on a bipartisan mandate to require people to wear masks in public.
An agenda for the meeting prepared by the governor's office said participants would discuss mask legislation and calling a special session of the Legislature. Kelly's chief spokesman acknowledged Monday that legislators might have to rewrite the law enacted in June to allow a statewide mandate, and lawmakers are not scheduled to reconvene until January.
But participants in Tuesday's meeting said they agreed to work with the Kansas Association of Counties and Kansas League of Municipalities to encourage local officials to consider mask mandates in coronavirus hot spots. In a statement, Kelly called it “a strategy of engagement.”
"It is my hope that this bipartisan outreach strategy will avert the need for emergency legislation through a special session,” Kelly said.
Top Republican lawmakers and the Democratic governor had been at odds for months over her handling of the pandemic. Kelly imposed a statewide stay-at-home order for five weeks, ending in early May, but then compromised on the law enacted in June to ensure that a state of emergency she declared for the pandemic could last through the rest of the year.
Republicans hold two-thirds majorities in both legislative chambers and forced Kelly to accept local control over mask mandates, restrictions on businesses, limits on public gatherings and reopening K-12 schools. They've argued that the state should not impose “one size fits all” rules in a diverse state.
“Going in and passing a statewide mask mandate without understanding why there's reluctance or what strategies could be used to overcome that reluctance probably doesn't solve the problem because people are going to rebel,” said Senate Vice President Jeff Longbine, R-Emporia.
The House's top three Republicans issued a statement noting an agreement to promote public education to increase mask use, then called on Kansas residents to follow public health officials' advice because, “This is the right thing to do.”
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, said: “I think that the special session is off the table.”
But House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, said rewriting the law to allow a statewide mask mandate could be an option if the leaders' approach “if this doesn't work.”
“Hopefully, this does work and solves the problem,” Sawyer said.
The meeting was private even though a majority of the lawmakers serve on one state council that handles some financial decisions when lawmakers are not in session and another that makes administrative decisions for the Legislature. The meeting's agenda said the state's Open Meetings Act wouldn't be violated if participants avoided issues either council would handle, and participants said they were careful to do so.
But Emily Bradbury, executive director of the Kansas Press Association said in an email: “This is the public’s business. It is a disservice to Kansans when officials tie themselves in knots to avoid openness.”