TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly responded to surging coronavirus infection Wednesday with a statewide executive order mandating people wear a mask in public and requiring county county commissions to take a public vote if they want to reject the mandate or craft their own measures.
Counties have one week to pass their own measure or accept her public-safety directive.
Kelly signed a comparable mask order in July that lacked instructions for a local government vote, and nearly four of five counties determined masking was unwarranted to stem the tide of COVID-19.
In the four months since the governor issued her first mask order, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Kansas mushroomed by 113,000 and fatalities ballooned by 1,050.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported the first 18 days of November resulted in an additional 39,300 cases, 280 deaths and 660 hospitalizations.
During a news briefing Wednesday, Kelly said the surge in cases has taken a toll on overwhelmed health care professionals. And, she said, a critical COVID-19 patient in Concordia recently was transported three hours by ambulance to Omaha, Nebraska, because eight hospitals in Kansas were too full to accept new patients.
“As COVID-19 continues to spread through Kansas communities and hospitalizations increase at concerning rates, it is clear we must take action to protect our communities and our economy,” Kelly said. “Today’s actions are a bipartisan package of recommendations from legislators, health professionals and business leaders to increase participation in commonsense COVID-19 prevention practices.”
Officials in all 105 Kansas counties were allowed under a 2020 state law written by the Republican-controlled Legislature to ignore Kelly’s order on masks applicable to inside public spaces, people receiving medical services or riding public transportation and in outdoor spaces where a 6-foot distance couldn’t be maintained.
In recent weeks, a handful of cities and counties have adopted more stringent rules as the number of infected Kansans raced higher.
Kansas is on the cusp of launching a $1.5 million public awareness campaign in collaboration with the Kansas Hospital Association, Kansas Chamber, Kansas Farm Bureau and other organizations to convince people to wear masks, social distance, wash hands and avoid mass gatherings.
For weeks, the Democratic governor has said all options were on the table in terms of countering the influx of cases, hospitalizations and deaths. She assured Republican and Democratic legislative leaders that her administration hadn’t discussed a statewide order that would temporarily close businesses.
“We can avoid further damage to our economy and to Kansas by the simplest of measures — wearing a face-covering in public,” said House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, of Wichita. “I urge counties to craft and adopt protocols that suit their communities and needs.”
“The time for arguing and debating is long passed,” he added. “We must do the right thing for Kansas.”
A new report from the White House Coronavirus Task Force describes the spread of COVID-19 in Kansas as “exponential and unyielding.” The report recommended state officials improve enforcement of mask mandates and work with local influencers to spread the message about the importance of wearing a mask.