By Adam Strunk
County Commissioners Randy Hague, Ron Krehbiel and Chip Westfall rejected the advice of both the health department director and the county health officer and exempted Harvey County from a public mask requirement previously issued by Gov. Laura Kelly. The governor issued the order following a growing spike in COVID-19 cases in Kansas after the state’s re-opening. Nationally, the United States had the highest total of new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, surpassing 50,000.
“I said I’m going to make a lot of people mad today,” Hague said of his decision. “It’s just the way it is. It’s one of those controversial decisions, and hopefully things work out.”
The special meeting to discuss the order began with County Administrator Anthony Swartzendruber explaining that the public mask requirement would have people wearing masks indoors and outdoors in public places where they could not maintain six feet of distance.
Swartzendtruber told commissioners they’d be able to exempt the county from the governor’s order.
“You would need to conclude with the local health officer and health officials that implementation was not necessary to protect safety of the county,” he said.
Following, the commission spoke to Health Director Lynette Redington, as well as County Medical Officer Doyle Detweiler.
Redington told the commission the percentage of positive COVID-19 tests had increased in recent weeks from 2.2 to 2.6 percent. Mid June, the county had 16 cases. That count had climbed to 42 at the time of the meeting.
“I’m going to say we strongly recommend that we would accept the executive order as the governor presented it,” she said.
Detweiler shared the same opinion.
“I’m trying to minimize the spread,” he said. “Wearing masks is simple. It’s not 100-percent effective but sure decreases droplet spread. The truth of the matter is every individual has got to do everything possible to protect everybody else.”
Westfall said he’d received nearly 300 phone calls and texts about the issue and said some of those were from hospital employees in favor of the masks, telling him that Wichita hospitals are nearly full and that it would be difficult for Newton to transfer new patients to Wichita.
Westfall asked Detweiler if that was true.
“They’re starting to max out,” Detweiler said, noting that, on the positive side, Newton still had good capacity.
Hague asked Detweiler and Redington, looking at the county’s gating criteria, how it was dealing with the disease on a 1-10 scale, with 10 being the best.
Redington said a 7.5.
The gating criteria includes information such as available protective equipment, hospital beds and case spread. The county uses this information to determine if it should move backwards in its COVID-19 recovery plan.
Hague asked if they recommended that the county move backwards in the plan. Redington said no.
“So why do you feel it warrants mask adoption,” he asked, adding that he wanted to understand their thinking and that personally he believed that if “everybody in the world would wear a mask,” COVID-19 would be over in a few weeks.
“What I worry is, if we’re not careful, we’re going to see more and more and more, and I really don’t want to start shutting things down,” Detweiler said.
Hague also said during discussion that he didn’t think a mask order would make much of a difference.
“If we adopt these, I think a large majority of the naysayers are not going to wear masks,” he said. “The responsible people are going to wear a mask regardless of what we do. I don’t think you could do anything with a health order to change their mind.”
“We have speed limits,” he said “ We still have people that speed. Should we just take speed limits away? People not wanting to go along with a law, especially a law like this, does not exempt us saying, ‘No, we should not proceed.’”
During the discussion, commissioners then all explained how they were feeling and the decisions they planned on making.
Hague said that he thought people should wear masks, but the county wasn’t at the point where it needed a requirement.
“I don’t think this is the time to do it,” Hague said. At the meeting he noted Harvey County had lower per capita infection rates then the state and nation. “I’m not saying we won’t do it if things get out of hand. I just don’t think it’s the right time to do it.”
Hague, explaining his decision, said he had received a large amount of communication from local business owners, asking the county to uphold the governor’s order. According to Hague, the owners said adopting the order would take the weight off their shoulders to enforce public health actions.
Hague said that businesses should take responsibility for themselves. “Until we change these attitudes, it’s going to be tough to get through this.”
Westfall, at times, sounded like he would vote for the plan.
“This is not a Democrat/Republican issue; this is a national issue,” he said. “In hindsight, if we would have went to masks, we’d be a better country today.”
However, he said should the county vote the plan down, people should read it and follow the order on their own in order to prevent any future shutdown.
“This is a wake up call to people that don’t want to wear masks,” he said. “I do not want to shut businesses down.”
He said the time had come for people to practice R and R, meaning respect and responsibility, and wear masks as well as not harass those wearing masks.
Krehbiel said there were a lot of people who don’t want to wear masks, and it makes them mad. He said businesses can require masks.
“You’ll have a lot of people upset if we force it on them,” he said.
He added that people would be upset if law enforcement arrested them for not wearing a mask.
Swartzendruber explained that anyone not wearing a mask would only be given a citation, and the state attorney general had weighed in, saying the rule was legal.
However, at a meeting held two days prior, Sheriff Chad Gay told commissioners he had no plans of enforcing the rule.
Following the discussion came public comments. That included former county administrator and long time Hesston mayor John Waltner.
Waltner spoke to the commission on the meaning of leadership.
He said while the numbers are looking better right now, that could change.
“We’re talking about leadership and changing normative behavior,” Waltner said, noting that some people will not act for the good of others until that behavior becomes normative.
He told the commission community leaders make a difference and they should think about that. He said they can and should be willing to step up and encourage people to do simple things.
“If for no other reason than to keep businesses open and keep people healthy, I’d encourage you to think of your role,” he said.
Following, all three commissioners voted to exempt Harvey County from the state mask order.
Both Westfall and Hague said they strongly encouraged mask use, despite the vote. Krehbiel said he understood some people wanting to wear masks and some people not wanting to wear masks.
Afterwards, the county made decisions on how it should operate as a body.
It will require all employees to wear masks.
Hague said he was in favor of having all patrons entering county buildings wear masks. Westfall said he wanted to wait on that idea. No action was taken on patron requirements.