Marshall County commissioners on Friday opted out of the governor’s mask order, instead issuing a resolution strongly encouraging the public to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
On Monday, commissioners took exception to that in the Marshall County Courthouse, voting unanimously to require the public wear a mask in the courthouse. Masks are available in courthouse offices, and county employees must wear masks in commons areas of the courthouse including hallways and restrooms. Otherwise, employees are behind plexiglass when dealing with the public.
County counselor Jason Brinegar said he spoke with the sheriff’s department to confirm that if a person refused to wear a mask in the courthouse and then refused to leave, officers could arrest that person for trespassing.
On Friday, commissioners held a special session in response to the governor’s mask order for the general public and said they wanted to leave it to individuals on whether or not to wear protective masks.
The commissioners drafted a resolution strongly encouraging masks but not requiring them. The resolution states that businesses could choose to impose their own mask requirements.
“I’d like to leave it up to (the public’s) choice,” said commissioner Keith Bramhall, Vermillion.
His comments were echoed by the two other commissioners, who voted unanimously for the resolution.
“Enforcement of such an order would be a near impossibility,” the county resolution states.
Marshall County Health Department reported two recovered cases of COVID-19, and eight tests pending on Monday.
Statewide, Kansas has watched its COVID-19 numbers jump exponentially in recent days, adding 1,000 new cases since last Friday, according to state health officials Monday.
Gov. Laura Kelly’s mask order 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.” But a recent law passed by the Legislature and signed by Kelly allows counties to weaken or strengthen such orders.
Marshall County commissioners chairman Barb Kickhaefer said Friday that she was fine with Kelly’s mask order until she read Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s memorandum issued after the mask order. 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 masks were to occur, how would that be resolved by the business, she asked. 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 work on criminal cases. She said the county passing a resolution that simply recommends masks 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. The county has had two cases, 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 state 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 pandemic’s financial hit to restaurants has been drastic.
Marshall 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.
Ryan said nearly all outbreaks stem from 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 rising caseload.
Rhodes said the issue has been controversial 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. Topeka has seen its caseload climb quickly lately and Shawnee County commissioners on Monday ordered people to wear masks in public, including when they can’t safely distance themselves outdoors.
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.