As of noon today, the Barton County COVID-19 mask mandate ended.
This was the decision of a split County Commission, meeting as the Board of Health, this morning. In addition, the county will opt out of the current state mask mandate, as well as the next anticipated state order.
However, while divided on the mandates, commissioners unanimously urged residents to wear masks and maintain social distancing as they feel necessary to remain safe. They also pleaded with the public to exercise common sense.
In the end, those voting to repeal the mandate thought it an over-reach of government and should be up to the common sense of the public to do the right thing. While understanding these points, those voting to keep the masks wanted to err on the side of caution.
“I’ve had several emails that are in favor of rescinding the mask mandate,” said District 1 Commissioner Kirby Krier, who along with District 2 Commissioner Barb Esfeld and District 3 Commissioner Shawn Hutchinson voted for recension. “I didn’t receive any that wanted to keep it.”
One of the emails he received was from a teacher in Hoisington. “It’s hard for young kids to learn with a mask,” he said, referring the message.
The face covering interferes with facial expressions that help teachers see if a student is understanding what is being taught, he said.
“I received well over 50 emails and phone calls,” Esfeld said. “I received an overwhelming response to remove the mask mandate.”
Not all in agreement
However, “I did have a conversation with (USD 428 Superintendent) Khris Thexton this morning,” said District 5 Commissioner Jennifer Schartz, who joined Commission Chairman Jim Daily of District 4 in voting to keep the mandate. “He said at the very least, he would like to see the mask mandate run through the Easter holiday.”
He said he would really prefer for it to remain in effect through the end of school because his number one concern is just finishing the school year, she said. And if COVID numbers spike, they may have to stop the school year or go to remote learning, something no one wants.
“I know that everybody’s getting tired of the mask mandate,” Schartz said. However, “perhaps it bothers adults, and how they perceive things, more than it does the actual children.”
Schartz said she has also received the emails asking for the mandate to be repealed. “I think there are a reasonable number of people in our county who simply do things because they are willing followers, and they say ‘if you decide that I need to do this, I will do it, but if you decide I don’t, I won’t. Those people might make up the difference in whether we keep this thing under control or not.”
She is also apprehensive about the COVID variants.
“In half of the states in the country, the numbers are still on the rise. “We’re not an island out here. I think we need to just be very protective. I guess I’m on the side of caution.”
Use common sense
“Well, while I disagree with Jennifer I respect her immensely,” Hutchinson said.
“This had to be a difficult decision for the previous commission because it’s so divisive,” he said. But, “I’d like to just say that the mask mandate has been on my mind since long before taking office as a commissioner.”
He said he respected that decision, even though he disagreed with it. “I believe in lower taxes, smaller government, and personal responsibility. I know our citizens are capable of using common sense and common courtesies. Making a mandate is an overreach of our limited powers.
“I believe in our community, and I believe after a year we all know the universal precautions and can follow them without any sort of government intervention,” he said. “Today, I ask our wonderful citizens of Barton County, wear a mask if you have a cough, stay home if you’re sick, and respect each other’s health and decisions.”
He also asked the school boards to “unmask our children.”
“I like to be clear. I think I can speak for Kirby and myself on this one. We’re not against masks,” Hutchinson said. It’s your right; if you want to wear a mask wear your mask. If you feel safer, please do.”
Businesses can still impose their mandates in their own properties, and people have to follow them, he said. “This is us saying that we don’t believe that the government has control to tell us what to do. And we would rather not have the government overreaching into our lives.”
There is nothing saying that cities or school districts can’t impose their own mandates, Krier said.
“In an area where there is potential for the spread of this particular problem, wearing a mask is not going to hurt you,” Daily said. “I have a personal issue because I have a wife who has got very serious illness of the immune system, such that I don’t want to infect her with things that she does need to be infected with, so we choose one. But there are times that we choose not wear masks.”
Daily said he wasn’t voting to keep the mandate because he was opposed to the personal liberty argument. “But I feel I have an obligation as well to try to make the county as safe as we possibly can. And I’m not convinced that masks do not help any more than I am convinced that they’re the whole savior of the whole process.”
However, “they help,” along with the other safety precautions.
A great discussion
“I’m a team player,” Schartz said. “I understand where everybody is on this, but I use my nay vote to impress upon people how important I think the mask mandate is. Commissioner Hutchinson said that it’s up to people now to do the right thing, and let’s just hope that we all rise to the occasion and continue to wear masks so that we will keep our schools open and keep everybody safe.”
“I agree that we had a great discussion,” Esfeld said. “I respect what Jennifer says as well and would echo encouraging masks, especially if you’re health-compromised.”