County commission approves mask order

By Adam Strunk 

The Harvey County Commission voted 3-0 to affirm an emergency health order made by County Health Officer Doyle Detweiler requiring masks to be worn in public spaces and businesses where consistent distancing of more than six feet is not possible.

The decision came following pleas by Newton Medical Center, local physicians, and the business community, as well as in the face of cases more than doubling in the county in the last 10 days.

“When we rescinded the governor’s order a couple weeks ago, at that time we had 42 cases and just a handful that were active,” Commissioner Randy Hague said. “We made the comment at the time if things change we’ll have to reexamine this. Boy, have things changed.”

Harvey County now has 41 active cases out of 95 total cases, as well as three deaths.

The order requires people to wear masks in public if they can’t consistently distance by more than six feet. The order requires masks indoors if distancing more than six feet isn’t possible.

Business employees are also required to wear masks when in contact with the public, food or in a space where six feet of distance can not be maintained.

The local order is similar to Governor Laura Kelly’s executive mask order, but it does offer an additional exemption for people indoors if they are separated by physical barriers.

That change has been made to accommodate manufacturers that may already have placed physical barriers between employees to prevent spread.

According to a later county press release, the order allows for some exceptions, such as children 5 years old and younger, individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing, and individuals with a medical condition, mental health condition, or disability that prevents them from wearing a face cover. The order does not include criminal or financial penalties for violation.

Sheriff Chad Gay said in recent weeks that he refused to enforce a mask mandate but would help businesses out in enforcing their preferences.

The order goes into effect Wednesday, July 15, and expires Aug. 11.

The commission made their decision after Newton Medical Center CEO Val Gleason updated the county on the hospital’s ability to combat the disease.

She said, nationally, medicines to treat COVID-19, such as Remdesivier, are rationed and directed to areas of higher outbreak, meaning the hospital has limited supplies and does not know when those supplies will be replenished.

She said the hospital has not been able to access personal protective equipment and, in one case, was turning the the Sherman Williams paint company to acquire N-95 masks. She said in another situation, a seller was selling masks for nearly $5 a piece and requiring a minimum order of 500,000 masks.

“The pipeline for the replenishment of PPE is absolutely disrupted,” she said.

She said that testing supplies nationally are also being intercepted and re-routed and that the hospital recently burned through half of its testing materials after it had a staff exposure and had to test about 100 staff members on site.

“I’m urging our leadership to enact a measure that face masks be worn in public until a widespread immunization is achieved,” she said.

She also said she begged residents to observe the rule to not put their health care providers at risk and stress the system by getting sick.

At the meeting, the commission learned that a person’s average 12- to 14-day stay in a hospital with COVID-19 churned through about $18,000, on average, in PPE equipment.

Harvey County Medical Society President Jennifer Koontz presented the commission with a letter signed by 44 local physicians urging them to pass the rule.

She told the commission that the most recent medical information was showing masks were an effective way of preventing people from spreading the disease, and mask usage by more than 90 percent of the population could decrease community spread by 58 percent.

Newton Area Chamber Director Pam Stevens also called on the county to show leadership and put this rule in place to protect local businesses from another shutdown.

In discussing their reasoning for approving the order, Commissioner Chip Westfall said another business shutdown wasn’t possible.

“I’ve had numerous businesses tell me they can’t close and stay in business,” Westfall said. “If you can’t get people in your door, the value of a slate is zero.”

Westfall said he’d received more than 400 emails, texts and phone calls in recent weeks about a mask mandate.

He said that the order was the next step in preventing the spread of COVID-19 and that people needed to be considerate and wear masks if they could.

“We asked our citizens to do that. Now we need to lead them down the street to do it,” he said. “We are going to have the naysayers, but if we can get 90 percent masked and a 58 percent reduction in COVID-19, that’s a remarkable goal.”

Commissioner Ron Krehbiel was short on remarks but said he now believed that masks were necessary.

Hague said he didn’t want three things to happen: schools to be closed, businesses to shut down and a stay-at-home order to take place. He said the order could prevent those things from happening and called on residents to follow the order and do their part to prevent the COVID-19 spread.

“It shouldn’t be about you and me,” he said, as his voice began cracking with emotion. “It should be about us and we. We can beat this together. I can’t believe the amount of hate mail I’ve gotten on the computer. It’s awful. Let’s just do this together.”

Westfall said that masks represent a step the county can take to lower cases. He said the county will now have to see more data to see if any other steps are necessary.

“Do we reduce size of attendances yet?” he asked, adding that he thought that was a step the county may have to look at a few weeks down the line. “We have to look at the Fourth of July and see numbers in the coming weeks; are we getting it flattened out.”

Health Director Lynnette Redington said at the meeting that tests results were taking up to nine days to come back as national labs bent under increased testing demand. She said the county was not yet seeing a possible Fourth of July case spike reflected in its numbers.

Doing the math, with COVID-19 having an incubation period of two weeks and with the current testing delay, it could be more than three weeks before changes in health policy get reflected in county case numbers.