By Sarah Kessinger
Marshall County commissioners on Friday opted out of Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly's mask order, instead issuing a resolution that strongly encourages the public to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“I’d like to leave it up to (the public’s) choice,” said commissioner Keith Bramhall.
His comments were echoed by the other two commissioners who voted unanimously to approve the resolution.
“Enforcement of such an order would be a near impossibility,” the county resolution states.
Gov. Laura Kelly issued the order for the public to wear masks Thursday. It requires Kansans “to wear masks when inside any public space – including their workplace – or in situations where social distancing of 6 feet cannot be maintained.”
According to a Thursday press release from Kelly’s office, the executive order mandating masks will remain in place until it is rescinded or until the current statewide State of Disaster Emergency expires.
But a recent law passed by the state Legislature and signed by Kelly allows counties to weaken or strengthen such orders.
Marshall County commissioners chairman Barb Kickhaefer said Friday morning at a special session that she was fine with Kelly’s mask order until she read Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s memorandum issued late Thursday. It stated that counties could enforce mask wearing as a civil matter in court, though they could not enforce it as a criminal case.
“My worry is if this becomes a civil liability, where do businesses stand?” Kickhaefer said.
If an altercation between customers over whether or not to wear a mask were to occur, she asked, how would that be resolved by the business?
It’s best left up to each business whether to require masks, Kickhaefer said.
County Attorney Meghan Voracek said having to prosecute a civil case over the mask issue would take time away from her other work on criminal cases. She said if the county passed a resolution that simply recommends masks, that would remove it from law enforcement’s hands.
County health officer John Ryan, a physician at Community Memorial Healthcare, concurred with issuing a strong recommendation rather than a mandate to wear masks. Two cases have been reported recently in the county, he noted, unlike areas with much more spread.
But he said wearing masks remains the best way to protect others.
“I think employees wearing masks are important because it protects the business from having to shut down,” he said.
Lori Snellings, manager of Marysville’s Wagon Wheel Cafe, opposed the mask order saying they pose a burden to staff faced with wearing them for eight-hour shifts. She said servers stop at customer tables only briefly as they come and go and don’t stay to talk.
Snellings noted the financial hit to restaurants during the pandemic has been drastic.
County health nurse Sue Rhodes said her staff is contact tracing when cases are reported and they are currently monitoring 40 people exposed to active cases of the virus. The county had nine virus tests pending as of Thursday.
Ryan said nearly all of the outbreaks that occur are in groups, such as at "funerals, lake groups, whenever you have more than 10 people together.”
He said spacing six feet between people is important but masks make a big difference. Ryan said masks should be emphasized as Kansas is among states with a rising caseload.
Rhodes said there was controversy and that at least one business owner had called her about an argument between customers.
“I don’t think this is worthy of a fight,” Rhodes said, adding that schools will have a difficult time determining how to protect students and staff if they are to reconvene this fall.
Mask wearing won’t be possible, she said, for sports such as football, wrestling and basketball.
The county’s resolution is effective until it is rescinded.
Several surrounding counties have followed similar steps in rescinding the governor’s mask order and issuing their own resolutions that encourage use of masks. Riley County had not taken action as of Thursday, leaving the state's mask order in place.
Under the governor’s order, the following people and situations are exempt from wearing a mask:
• Children ages 5 and under.
• People with medical conditions that prevent them from wearing a mask.
• People who are deaf or hard of hearing and the ability to see the mouth is essential for communication.
• People eating or drinking at a food service establishment.
• People engaged in an activity that cannot be safely conducted while wearing a mask.
• People engaged in an event held or managed by the Legislature or the state judiciary.
The following locations and organizations in Marshall County are selling or giving away masks:
• Marysville City Building has them available for businesses to give to staff and customers.
• Identiteez in Marysville
• Tryon’s Pour House in Blue Rapids.
• Waterville City Hall.
• Elsie Grace’s in Frankfort.
• Families First of Marshall County
• Reflections Hallmark in Marysville
• Marysville Health & Fitness
• CJ convenience stores in the county
• Pony Express Tanning and Trading in Marysville