A mask mandate and other COVID safety precautions will continue in Sedgwick County for at least the next three weeks, and maybe longer.
Sedgwick County’s health officer, Dr. Garold Minns, issued a new emergency public health order Tuesday that will take effect Saturday just as current restrictions expire. His last health order went into effect July 25.
“It’s very important that we keep working hard on this. We cannot let up,” Minns said at the Sedgwick County Commission meeting Wednesday.
The new order allows bars and nightclubs to reopen, with limitations on capacity and operating hours. Bars, nightclubs and restaurants that serve alcohol must limit occupancy to 50% capacity and close to the public daily by 11 p.m. Currently, bars and nightclubs are shut down, and restaurants have a midnight curfew.
The new mandate keeps the mass gathering limit at 15 people, and continues the mask policy in public spaces when social distancing isn’t possible. The mask requirement now extends to children six-years-old and up, instead of exempting those 11 years old and younger.
Outdoor and indoor entertainment venues are allowed to operate if they can comply with the mass gathering limit, and cap attendance at 2,000 people.
“I would prefer not to close any businesses. I prefer not to have any restrictions on any businesses at all. I actually prefer not to have require people to wear masks,” Minns said. “But I have very limited tools [to reduce the spread of COVID-19].”
Sedgwick County commissioners voted 3-2 in support of Minns’ order, without making any revisions. Commissioners Pete Meitzner, Lacey Cruse and David Dennis voted in favor, and Michael O’Donnell and Jim Howell were the no votes.
Sedgwick County’s cumulative COVID-19 case count reached more than 5,400 cases this week. The county’s average positivity test rate has hovered around 10% for the past two weeks. The county reported its highest positivity rate — 14% — on July 23, just as Minns’ last public health order was issued.
Minns said the policies appear to be working and must continue in order to get the disease under control.
“My objective here is to keep the rate of disease as low as possible, prevent long-term complications and prevent people from getting this virus and spreading it to others. That’s all we’re trying to do,” Minns said.
The new mandates are in effect through Sept. 8, but Minns says they could be extended if the county’s positivity rate doesn’t go down.
He says it’s possible that the mandatory mask policy extends into the fall.
"I don’t see this disease going away anytime soon. The virus will still be out there," he said. "Now we learned a lesson at the end of May."
That's when Sedgwick County had a 2% or lower positivity rate. At that time, county commissioners opted out of a statewide plan that allowed businesses to reopen in phases based on COVID-19 data. There were no mandates for wearing masks, only a recommendation.
As the local economy reopened and public activities resumed, the county experienced a steady and dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases. On June 1, there were 626 cases reported; two months later on Aug. 1, there were 4,463 cases.
“You’ve got to keep full-court pressure on this thing, or it’s just going to raise its ugly head again like it did at the end of May,” Minns said.
The public health order cannot be enforced through criminal charges, fines or civil penalties. Last week, the city of Wichita extended its mandatory mask policy to remain in effect until Sept. 8.