Encouraged by county health officials, Marshall County Board of Commissioners on Monday agreed unanimously to immediately enact a countywide mask mandate.

Their action came after Marysville City Council passed its own mandate Friday. The city’s order will go into effect Thursday.

Both mandates come amid widespread COVID-19 across the Midwest and much of the rest of the nation.

On Monday, a second COVID-19 death was reported by the Marshall County Health Department. There also were 133 active cases and 57 pending tests. As of Monday, the county had recorded 364 total cases so far.

Marshall County’s mandate currently does not include fines or other enforcement steps for failure to comply. Commissioners said they’d try an educational approach at first and take further steps if problems persist.

Dr. John Ryan, the county’s health officer, told commissioners Monday that counties with mask mandates have half the cases of COVID-19 compared with those that don’t require them.

County counselor Jason Brinegar said opposition to wearing a mask ranged from people saying it’s a matter of personal freedom, to medical conditions, to fear that it might cause harm.

Ryan said generally there’s no known medical problem to prevent someone from wearing a mask, adding that even people with severe COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) can wear a mask without issues. Ryan acknowledged there are circumstances when masks are not advised, such as intellectually disabled individuals unable to handle a mask.  

Ryan and county health nurse Sue Rhodes said a mask mandate would likely slow the virus’ spread. They said it could take at least two to three weeks to see whether cases have declined. The virus can incubate for a couple of weeks before symptoms surface in a person. Many cases have no symptoms, easing its spread.

Similar mandates

Marysville and Marshall County’s mandates are very similar, based off of Gov. Laura Kelly’s mandate issued in July. Many counties, including Marshall, opted out of that mandate in the summer but are now reversing course.

The city of Marysville’s mandate includes a $20 fine for individuals and $50 fine for businesses that don’t comply. City officials said they, too, plan to encourage and educate the public before resorting to fines.

Nemaha County commissioners also opted to enact the governor’s mask mandate last Thursday.

On Monday, the state reported 1,266 deaths so far from the pandemic with 122,741 people having tested positive since the start. Stormont-Vail hospital in Topeka announced Monday that there was no room for more COVID-19 patients, heightening worries for small-town hospitals with limited equipment facing tragic decisions of how to treat a feared surge of severe cases.

Rhodes expressed frustration at the situation and at adults not wearing masks.

“We have children in pre-school through 12th grade wearing them, but we have adults who we can’t get to wear them,” she said.

Health officials say the region’s medical system is under duress as the large emergency care facilities are overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, which limits emergency transfers from rural hospitals such as CMH. Hospitals also face a shortage of health-care workers with several quarantined or out with the virus.

The county’s new mandate requires people to wear masks inside any public spaces, including at work, or in situations where people are unable to maintain at least six feet of distance from others. Health officials say the virus often spreads in businesses where employees work in close proximity to others.

Kansans under age 5, those with medical conditions, and others specifically outlined in the order are exempt from the requirements.

Marysville’s has deadline

Marysville City Council set the city mandate until Jan. 17. They plan to reevaluate the situation then and determine whether to extend it.

“By then we’ll know if numbers are what they are now, in the two hundreds, or back down to twos and threes,” said Council Member Kevin Throm.

“This gets us past the holidays,” said Mayor Jason Barnes.

Police chief Todd Ackerman, who helped draft the mandate, said it is similar to Manhattan’s, which has seen good compliance.

Recent research, including a study conducted by the University of Kansas in October, showed that spread of COVID-19 is slowed when people wear masks and safely distance. Research also shows masks not only protect others from a person wearing one, but also shields the person wearing it from virus-loaded droplets of others nearby.

Council member Keith Beikmann voted against the proposal. He said later on Facebook that he wanted the county to pass one.

Ackerman said the police department had obtained another 10,000 masks last week and would continue to give them out. Businesses are welcome to call 785-562-2343 if they need them.

The ordinance requires that people wear masks while in public unless they are outdoors and can be six feet or more from another person. Marysville public schools are exempt from the ordinance, as the district follows the state high school activities association rules regarding masks, social distancing and limits on crowd attendance.

Marysville City Administrator Austin St. John said the new ordinance’s goal “is not to punish people. We want to encourage, we have the means to encourage, we’re handing out masks for free. Businesses have been given them.”

Throm said the goal is to keep businesses open by preventing out-of-control spread, which could prompt the state to again shut down non-essential businesses as in the spring.

“We need to stay on top of this.”

A public notice with the ordinance is on page 7A. Once published, it became effective.

St. John said people in restaurants can remove their masks to eat. But once they get up from the table, masks should be on.

“Our numbers are not going in the right direction…we’ve got to be careful not to overrun our hospitals,” Barnes said.

Last week, Community Memorial Healthcare had its busiest week of testing to date, with local physicians putting out the call to the public to wear masks, social distance and wash hands.

The county has been among “hot spots” and in the red zone nationally for rate of spread, according to multiple media and medical reports.

“That’s not a list you want to end up on,” Barnes said.

Concern is that severe problems are just beginning as hospitals in Topeka, Kansas City, Lincoln, Neb., Salina and Wichita struggle with patient capacity.

“It’s going to start backing up to the hospitals in these rural communities,” Throm said.