Commissioners extend mask order indefinitely

Harvey County Commission Chairman Randy Hague referenced his upcoming election before he and Commissioner George “Chip” Westfall extended the county’s mask mandate indefinitely on Monday.

Hague said he’d received texts from people who indicated they wouldn’t vote for him if commissioners extended the mandate that first went into effect July 14. He also said he’d rather err on the side of caution.

“So be it. If my not getting elected saves one life, that’s well worth the price of it,” he said.

The mandate will stay in effect until rescinded by commissioners or the county’s medical officer, Dr. Doyle Detweiler.

As has been the case since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, several residents spoke out against masks during the public-comment session. Mary Ann Busenitz referred to her grandmother who she said grew up in Nazi Germany. She also read from the passage on the Statue of Liberty.

“I just wanted to say today we are yearning to breathe free,” she said.

Three members of the medical community also offered their perspectives. Dr. Jennifer Koontz said with freedom came responsibility.

“Masks work and no new science says they don’t,” she said.

She thanked commissioners for continuing to follow the science. She also committed to reporting back to commissioners if the science changed.

Matthew Schmidt, CEO of Health Ministries Clinic, said the medical community was united in recommending the continuation of a mask mandate.

Hague thanked everyone for their input and noted it was a “very divisive issue.”

Health Department Director Lynnette Redington said that soon after the mask order went into place the county saw a decline in the number of COVID-19 cases.

Westfall asked her about a Bethel College “gathering,” after which the number of cases shot up related to one cluster. He noted that masks were not worn at the event and that number of positive cases climbed from 3.1 to 10 percent in nine days.

County Administrator Anthony Swartzendruber passed along that though Commissioner Ron Krehbiel was unable to attend the meeting, he supports the mask order.

Westfall said masks enabled the economy to stay open. He said restaurants still hadn’t recovered from the shutdown last spring, and he encouraged people to order curbside service. He said two of his friends had contracted the virus, one of whom had symptoms for 10 days.

“He told me this is the worst he’s ever felt in his life,” he said.

Westfall said commissioners weren’t violating anyone’s liberties because President Donald Trump signed an order that gave governors authority during the crisis, and they passed it down to most counties.

Detweiler said the key was keeping the economy going while also keeping people healthy. He said health-care workers were in it for the long haul, such as until a vaccine and better treatments are developed. He recommended for people to take a deep breath and not get wound up for things beyond their control.

Hague noted the commissioners also composed the local board of health. He said a lot of people didn’t realize that the local health officer could issue his own order if commissioners rescinded the mask mandate.

“We’re divided enough in this country as it is,” he said. “I would hate to be divided on this issue, too.”

During her weekly public-health update, Redington said the county currently had 37 active cases. The county hit its peak with 56 cases on Oct. 11, most of which was related to the Bethel cluster.

In other business, commissioners:

•approved a request from the City of Sedgwick for $35,000 to be used for a police department and court relocation project. The money comes from the nearly $7 million the county received under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

•approved the purchase of streaming equipment not to exceed $35,000. The equipment, also funded by the CARES Act, will be an upgrade on what the county uses to stream commission meetings.

•approved moving forward with a bridge-replacement project on Southeast 60th Street, one mile east of Whitewater. Road and Bridge Superintendent Jim Meier notified commissioners the previous week that the Kansas Department of Transportation had selected the bridge for replacement as part of a state program. The state will cover 80 percent of the construction cost, which is estimated at $462,700. The county is responsible for design costs and right-of-way expenses.

•adopted a resolution allowing for the sale of surplus equipment, which includes a 2003 Ford E-350 bus and a 1984 Ford tractor.

•approved paying weekly bills totaling $468,877.63.