Sedgwick County has ended its mask mandate and other safety protocols intended to fight the spread of COVID-19.
County commissioners voted 3-2 Wednesday to rescind the current public health order effective immediately. The decision comes in response to an anticipated new state law that will open the county to lawsuits over how it manages the pandemic.
The county mandated wearing face masks in public in July. A series of emergency public health orders over the last year included a stay-at-home order, social distancing protocols, curfews for restaurants and bars, capacity limits for some businesses and limits on the size of gatherings.
Business restrictions have eased in the past few months as the county’s positive test rate fell to under 4%, down from a peak of about 20% in November. The latest health order from Sedgwick County Health Officer, Garold Minns came March 16. It loosened restrictions, but maintained the mask policy and social distancing requirements.
Kansas lawmakers passed SB 40 last week. The legislation limits state and local governments’ response to public health emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic, and will nullify public health orders across the state when it takes effect.
Gov. Laura Kelly is expected to sign the bill into law or let it become effective by March 29.
Assistant Sedgwick County Counselor Justin Waggoner says the new law would lower the bar for someone to challenge local health order restrictions, including the mask policy. Legal challenges would require a hearing within 72 hours.
“Our attorneys are telling us with no doubt that we are going to be inundated with a number of lawsuits,” said Commissioner David Dennis. “That’s going to clog up our courts, it’s going to clog up our legal system.
"Because the bar is so low, the chance of winning is fairly slim."
Dennis joined Commissioners Pete Meitzner and Jim Howell in voting to rescind the health order. Commissioners Lacey Cruse and Sarah Lopez voted against canceling the restrictions, and pushed to get health experts’ guidance on how the county should proceed.
“I don’t think that we should get rid of the mask mandate just because there’s a potential that we could be receiving lawsuits,” Lopez said.
With no mandates in place, it's up to businesses to determine their own policies on safety measures.
“Some retail establishments, restaurants may continue to have a mask requirement,” said Deputy County Manager Tim Kaufman. “Rather than it be a county-government directed or state-government directed, that would be on the local businesses to make those business decisions.”
Commissioners and county health leaders are strongly encouraging the community to get vaccinated when eligible, wear a mask and continue social distancing.
Mayor Brandon Whipple said Thursday he doesn't think there is enough support on the City Council for Wichita to enact its own mask mandate.
Wichita, under its home rule powers, did that last summer when the county initially declined to implement one. The order eventually expired.
The county is preparing to move into Phase 5 in its vaccination program, opening eligibility up to all residents 16 and older. The county is seeking approval from the state health department, and will likely take a vote Friday.
“I would like to implore us, and Dr. Minns and the state of Kansas, let’s get there as soon as possible and I think that’s right now," Commissioner Jim Howell said. "Maybe if not today, by the end of the week."
The county’s two vaccination clinics had dozens of openings this week as eligibility expanded to people in Phases 3 and 4. Those phases include people under 65 with medical conditions and workers in industries with public contact. Anyone in previous phases remain eligible.
County Health Director Adrienne Byrne says the amount of vaccine coming into the community has increased recently, so there are plenty of shots available.
"We know how many people have co-existing conditions and have been waiting for this to get to Phase 3 and 4," she said, "so it’s a little bit concerning that we don’t have as many people scheduling appointments."
The temporary clinic at the K-State Research and Extension Office in west Wichita will close Saturday. Kansas National Guard members who were helping with the clinic will move to the county’s main vaccination site downtown at the former Wichita Central Library.
“We have a lot of vaccine," Bryne said. "So that has been the wait the whole time, to get more vaccine in, to get people vaccinated, and we have it."
Byrne says more opportunities to get the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine will become available in the coming weeks.
The Sedgwick County Health Department is among 50 places in the Wichita area where residents can get a COVID-19 vaccination. The VaccineFinder website shows when providers like CVS, Walmart and Dillon’s have vaccine in stock.
State health officials say doctors and private medical clinics will also be offering vaccinations soon.