The longest discussion when the Barton County Commission met Monday took place after the meeting adjourned, as the commission was scheduled to discuss the latest COVID-19 news.
Last week, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly announced a new executive order requiring face coverings statewide. The plan gave communities a week to craft mask mandates for their jurisdictions. If no action is taken, the governor’s mandate would go into effect at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday.
The commission has rejected mask mandates on two past occasions, instead appealing to the public to do the right thing.
Barton County Administrator Phil Hathcock explained the county commission’s options Monday at a study session held after the regular business meeting.
He noted that the governor also issued an executive order requiring masks in public places where social distancing is not possible last summer. On July 2, Barton County opted out per House Bill 2016, which gives counties local control to opt out of the governor’s executive orders.
The latest executive order officially included a mask mandate similar to the one the county opted out of earlier.
“The commission has three options,” Hathcock said. “You can still opt out of the governor’s executive order through House Bill 2016. And if you were to do so you could certainly issue a proclamation stating ... people should wear a mask.
“A second option is to take no action at all, as a commission or as a health board. This would put the governor’s executive order in effect at midnight Tuesday. My understanding is that if the governor’s order did go into effect in Barton County, it would include the incorporated cities – Great Bend, Ellinwood and Hoisington,” Hathcock said.
“Then the third option that the county has is to adopt a resolution that has the mandate for Barton County, specifically. You can make this more less restrictive than the governor’s mask mandate. And you have three options through that as well. The resolution by commission would not include incorporated cities — in other words, incorporated cities would be able to do as they wished. Resolution by Board of Health would include the incorporated cities. And then finally, you could write a resolution adopted by the Board of Health, (that does not) include incorporated cities as they have councils and governing bodies that can make their own decisions.”
City administrators were invited to attend the meeting. Ellinwood City Manager Chris Komarek told the commission he thought the council’s preference “would probably be just to take no action at all and let the governor’s order take hold. I don’t think they want to be more restrictive,” he said.
“We have several citizens that have voiced their opinion very, very strongly in favor of a mask order,” Komarek continued.
Hoisington City Manager Jonathan Mitchell said the Hoisington City Council would meet Monday night. “So I’ll have a much better idea from our governing body after tonight’s meeting. But previous discussions have indicated that they are not supportive of a mask mandate. I think they want to urge and encourage people to use caution.”
Great Bend City Administrator Kendal Francis, who joined the meeting via a remote platform, said he wasn’t sure he knows what his city council wants. “They have been hesitant, reluctant to do anything in regard to mask mandates,” he said.
Each county commissioner weighed in on the issue.
Commissioner Jim Daily said, “It’s been my thought the whole time that masks are definitely a help. If you’re in a public place or in an area where you can’t maintain 6 feet, and so on, so forth, I think a mask is the smart way to go. But I’ve never been in favor of a mandate for masks.” He cited the exceptions to masks outlined in the governor’s order and the fact that if it is mandated, there’s no way for the county to enforce it.”
Commission Jennifer Schartz asked County Health Director Karen Winkelman to explain what advice the county Board of Health has received from its local medical consultant, Dr. Jonathan Pike, MD, who was recently added to the board.
Winkelman answered, “he sent a note last night with his recommendations. He said that, due to the significant strain on the hospitalizations due to COVID the facilities are remaining full and it’s increasingly difficult to transfer patients.”
Pike asked the commissioners to consider Governor Kelly’s executive order establishing a face covering protocol.
“He said, ‘I am aware that the persistent use of masks is an inconvenience to many. However, I do believe that at this time masks are necessary to maintain the health of our communities and prevent potentially more serious restrictions in the future if the virus is not controlled,'” Winkelman said.
He went on to say social distancing is also important and that it would be appropriate to revisit the issue on a monthly basis to see if there is a significant downward trend in positive cases and subsequent hospitalizations.
Schartz said, “I have struggled with this because I want to do the right thing. I don’t want to be on the wrong side of history when it goes down and says we did nothing. ... I have all the respect for Jim Daily as a commissioner, but I think that just because there’s no enforcement, it’s not a reason for us not to stand strong on what we all believe to be true. We’re going to have people who refuse to wear masks, we know that. I don’t want to be a burden on the on the law enforcement at all. But I think that if we stand firm and say we think this is the right thing, that those people who may be teetering one the line, ‘should I or shouldn’t I?’ I think that they will be law abiding citizens who go ahead and do the right thing.”
Linn Hogg from RSVP asked to speak. “You all know that I deal with seniors on a daily basis,” she said. “What I’m hearing from my seniors, over and over again, is a fear — a fear of not being able to get out, a fear of not being protected, and a fear that they’re just kind of a throwaway group.” With no mask mandate, they don’t know if they will meet people who aren’t following the suggestion to wear masks. “Things like that are keeping them at home.” That leads to depression, she added. “By putting a mask mandate in, it might allow some of those seniors that comfort to go out, comfort for people to come see them. I think (the mandate) just gives a little bit more teeth to say, ‘Hey, we need to have masks on.’”
Schartz made it clear she would like to see the governor’s executive order go into effect. “I have to say that I will be sorely disappointed if you do not follow through,” she told fellow commissioners. She said the commission received a petition earlier this month from people who support a mask mandate.
Commissioner Kenny Schremmer said he represents northern Barton County and he feels he needs to listen to his constituency, who appear to be less supportive of a mask mandate.
“What I hear from everywhere — businesses — is that they are losing their business. For example we have, here in town, one of them closed for awhile because they get demands put on inside the building. But it’s also the fact that we’re losing a lot of our businesses.”
Daily and Schremmer had questions about how restrictive the mandate would be. Daily wanted to know if a person sitting alone in his office had to wear a mask if the area is open to the public. (County Legal Counselor Patrick Hoffman replied that is not required “if you can social distance.”) Schremmer asked, “For example, if you’re driving down the street, do you ever have to have a mask on? I just want to double check because I’ve had that asked.” (The answer was no.)
“Every time this issue comes up, I get phone calls and emails,” Schremmer said. About half favor a mandate and half don’t. “The one half that don’t want it are passionate about the idea of not wanting it.” Those include a lady “who is just coming off of a quarantine, who’s a nurse, who still doesn’t want it. ... A mandate of this kind is not going to make someone who does not want to wear a mask wear one. Not going to happen.”
Schremmer added that he doesn’t want a return to restrictions that closed businesses. “We have a responsibility not only to the well being and the health and the safety of our citizens, but we likewise have the same kind of responsibility to our business community, because those people are what makes our county run.”
Commissioner Homer Kruckenberg said if the commissioners are leaders they need to lead. He was ready to vote, but because the commission had adjourned from its business meeting and this was only a study session, no action could be taken.
Commissioner Don Davis, who was attending the meeting via telephone, was asked to weigh in. He said he can’t wear a mask, but he wears a face shield when he goes out. He’s noticed people don’t wear masks and businesses don’t make them. “There’s people that don’t have any respect for other people. You’re not going to change that. “I really believe that we need to do something for the general public, to open their eyes to realize that this is the way it ought to be.”
Great Bend Fire Chief Luke McCormick was asked to weigh in and said the number of EMS calls has increased, including COVID-19 and other cases.
In the end, the commissioners agreed that they should meet Tuesday morning as a board of health. At that meeting, a modified mask mandate was adopted for the entire county.
Barton County Commission meeting at a glance
Here is a quick look at what the Barton County Commission did Monday morning:
• Recognized Appraiser’s Office Appraiser I Jame Allen for her Registered Mass Appraiser designation.
Kansas Administrative Regulations detail the prerequisites for earning the Kansas RMA designation, said County Appraiser Barb Esfeld. These include 170 mandatory course hours, 6,000 hours of mass appraisal experience and successful completion of both a residential and commercial case study. Allen recently accomplished this achievement.
• Approved a letter of support for Sunflower Diversified Services which is seeking tax exemptions properties at 5605 10th St., and 5611 10th St. in Great Bend.
The properties house Sunflower’s recycling and case management services, according to Jon Prescott, Sunflower chief executive officer.
He was unable to attend the meeting but reported through Barton County Administrator Phil Hathcock that Sunflower collected 2.8 million pounds of recycling materials in 2019 and 3.5 million pounds as of September 2020. Case management has grown from 86 clients in 2019 to 113 in 2020.
• During the study session following the agenda meeting, the commission received a COVID-19 update and discussed the use of face masks.
In light of this discussion, it was later announced that the Board of Health, which includes the commission, would meet at 9 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 24, in the Commission Chambers.