Barton County residents will not have to abide by Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive order mandating the use of face masks in public places to stem the spread of COVID-19. That was the decision of the Barton County Commission, acting as the Board of Health, when it met late Thursday afternoon.
Instead, commissioners strongly appealed to residents’ common decency and common sense to wear masks when appropriate, calling it the right thing to do. While acknowledging the value of face coverings, they said mandating them was an administrative overreach that could not be enforced.
Although a gubernatorial order, counties could vote to opt out of it, County Administrator Phil Hathcock said. The resolution approved by the county in essence repealed Kelly’s mandate locally.
“I think that people need to take care of themselves,” said Commissioner Jennifer Schartz, summarizing the sentiments of most on the commission. “I think there’s a large piece of this that is personal responsibility. If you feel like you need to wear a mask, please do if your health is compromised. Don’t go to those places where other people are.”
And, “take care of yourself. I think if everybody would take care of themselves first, then everybody around them would also be taken care of,” she said. “I would just like to appeal to the best in people to do the right thing.”
If someone doesn’t feel well, they should stay home, she said. If they must get out and feel compromised, they should wear a mask.
“I’ve read the executive order from the governor and I think it just, it just exceeds anything that anybody is able to do,” Schartz said.
“There’s arguments to be made either way,” Commissioner Jim Daily said. He understood the necessity for some to mask up, his wife included, but shied away from wanting to require it.
However, the vote was 5-1 with Commissioner Homer Kruckenberg the lone vote supporting the requirement.
“I think people should wear masks,” he said. I’m with the governor.”
Barton County citizens are urged to be vigilant in health safety practices and to continue washing their hands frequently, staying home when sick, practicing social distancing and frequently cleaning high touch surfaces.
Public health and legal opinions
County Health Consultant Dr. Stanley Hatesohl said hand washing and covering coughs help. “But, if we don’t wear a mask, all that other stuff probably isn’t that valuable.”
Legislating and enforcing masks is next to impossible, he said. “I don’t know how to forcefully tell people, ‘this is what we should be doing.’ You have to think it’s maybe not so much to protect ourselves, but we have to protect anybody else from us,” Hatesohl said.
County Health Director Karen Winkelman agreed.
The county’s COVID-19 numbers tapered off in June, but what increases there were followed a two-week incubation period after Memorial Day. Health officials will watch for another spike following the Fourth of July.
Her staff has also seen an uptick in the amount of contact tracing required.
“But, I think the conversation that bothers me more is the lack of seriousness,” Winkelman said. For some, all they experience is a loss of taste and smell “and that would be wonderful if that’s what everyone got.”
That’s not the case, with some having serious pain and lung issues. “I personally have tested some really sick, sick people. One of those being a family that I had to talk to afterwards as they were facing the death of their loved one. And those are not conversations that are fun to have.”
It is the lighthearted approach by some to the virus and comments like “you can’t make me wear a mask” that bother her.
Both Sheriff Brian Bellendir and County Attorney Levi Morris said there was no way to enforce the order. “Just so we’re perfectly clear on this, no law enforcement agency in the State of Kansas can enforce this,” Bellendir said. “This is a civil issue. In order to enforce that, either the Attorney General’s Office or the local county attorney would have to file a civil lawsuit against the individuals who are in violation.
“Absent egregious circumstances, I simply won’t do it,” Morris said of filing such suits.
“This resolution simply has a finding that the governor’s order is not completely necessary,” County Counselor Pat Hoffman said of the board’s action. “It is not an order that says the masks are bad, or that people shouldn’t wear them or that you’re against mask wearing. It is just an order that says this Governor’s order is not completely necessary for the public. So you’re not necessarily saying not to wear masks.”
Released earlier this week and signed by Kelly Thursday morning, the order goes into effect at 12:01 a.m. Friday. It requires masks be worn in stores, restaurants and in any situation where social distancing of 6 feet cannot be maintained, including outside.
Kansans under 5 years of age, those with medical conditions, and others specifically outlined in the order are exempt from these requirements.
“The last few months have presented many new challenges for Kansans, and all of us want to return to our normal lives and routines,” Kelly said. “Unfortunately, we have seen a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths across our state and our country. We must act.”
Viruses don’t stop at county lines, she said. “This order doesn’t change where you can go or what you can do. But wearing a mask is a simple and effective way to keep Kansans healthy and keep Kansas open for business.”
However, during a special session earlier this year, the Kansas Legislature adopted House Bill No. 2016 allowing Kansas counties to issue an order related to public health to contain provisions that are less stringent than the provisions of an Executive Order issued by the Kansas Governor.
The order will remain in place until rescinded or until the current statewide State of Disaster Emergency expires – whichever is earlier, the governor’s office reported.
In other business
Also on the agenda was the appointment of Karen Winkelman as the county health director. The former Barton County Health Department public health nurse supervisor and deputy local health officer, she has served as interim director since the resignation of Shelly Schneider in March.
On March 16, the Board of Health adopted a resolution appointing the interim Barton county local health officer and medical consultant. Under that Resolution, Winkelman was appointed as the interim Local Health Officer.
Thursday, the Board adopted a resolution naming Winkelman as the local health officer and the public health director, removing the interim from the titles.
Dr. Stanley M. Hatesohl shall continue in the role of medical consultant.