Sedgwick County commissioners voted Thursday not to adopt Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive order on masks as a mandate, but instead are recommending that residents mask up when they're out in public.
Some commissioners said they support the order’s intent, but questioned its enforceability.
"We really and truly need to wear our masks when we’re going out," Commissioner David Dennis said, "but the problem is enforcement."
Under state statute, violations of the order could result in a civil penalty. But Wichita and Sedgwick County law enforcement leaders have said they won’t enforce any mask requirement, and Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt said in a statement Thursday his office will “defer to the decisions of local county and district attorneys and has no plans to bring our own enforcement actions simply for not wearing a mask.”
Dennis said getting residents to wear masks will “come down to education.”
"What we have to do is educate our citizens that this is serious," he said. "We have people that are going into the hospital, we have people in nursing homes that are dying.
"We as commissioners take this seriously. But how do we get that seriousness out to the public? I don’t know that it’s with a mandate."
The commission’s decision came after county health experts urged stricter policies to curb the growing number of COVID-19 cases in the area.
County health officer Garold Minns told commissioners cases are "going up, up, up." Confirmed cases rose by 50 on Thursday for a total of 1,328.
"As opposed to late May, we were having 12-15 cases a day," he said. "So something’s going on."
Minns clarified that testing has remained stable throughout the past few weeks, and the rise in positive cases is not attributable to increased testing. He encouraged the board to adopt some order encouraging people to wear masks.
"It’s probably the most innocuous, painless, relatively speaking, intervention we can do," Minns said.
In a discussion with commissioners and business owners Thursday afternoon ahead of the vote, county public health director Adrienne Byrne warned the cases in the county were "exploding." In the past 24 hours, she said, the county has seen an additional 170 cases of COVID-19, though the official count has yet to reflect that.
"Our numbers increasing had a lot to do with the lack of restrictions, and people wanting to get back to normalcy and...some people acting like COVID isn’t part of our community still, and it is," she said.
A general consensus from the business owners in the meeting was that no one wanted to be "the mask police."
"We don’t feel it’s our place to police our guests," said Michelle Stein, general manager at Wichita Marriott. "We don’t want to offend our guests."
Tim Buchanan of Legend Senior Living disagreed, saying this was an issue of public safety and it’s the business’ responsibility to keep their customers safe.
"It’s been too much of a political statement and not enough conversation about the good of the public health,” he said.
Commissioner Lacey Cruse said the county's recommendation isn’t strong enough, and voted against the motion.
"We’re facing a pandemic," she said. "Our health officer has told us wearing masks slows the spread."
She said past recommendations — including the county’s decision to follow the governor’s reopening plan as a guideline — haven’t worked.
"Our 'strong recommendations' have completely overwhelmed our health department," she said.
"I think we have seen that recommendations don’t work. People don’t comply."
Commissioner Jim Howell, who also voted against the motion, suggested the board table any discussion on the order until next week, calling the order "not ready for prime time."
"It’s got a lot of problems with it the way it’s currently written," he said, adding people need to take the situation seriously and "wear masks then they don’t really want to."
Commission Chairman Pete Meitzner said he will "pay laser focus" to the number of cases and the situation at local hospitals in the coming days and adjust the commission’s decision if needed.
"If these numbers are going wrong,” he said, “I will call for another special meeting and I will totally reverse what I did today."
Wichita Mayor Brandon Whipple has called a special meeting for Friday afternoon to discuss and vote on an ordinance about the mask mandate, saying in a tweet "we must do what we can to avoid another shutdown."