BY ANNISTON WEBER
On Monday evening, I attended the county commission meeting where commissioners were set to discuss the potential mask mandate for Ellis County.
Upon taking my seat in the audience, I noticed something important: Everyone in the room had a mask on their face with the exception of the three county commission members.
The meeting began by letting those not on the order of business speak. Dr. Edward Hammond, president emeritus of Fort Hays State University, approached the mic to discuss the safety of FHSU students and the $75 million impact the university has on the Ellis County economy each year.
“I am here as a citizen who is really disappointed in you,” Hammond said.
As the meeting progressed, I learned that I, too, would be experiencing extreme disappointment towards the Ellis County commissioners.
A point Hammond made during his time speaking was that a mask mandate could potentially keep Hays from shutting down again – something our local economy desperately needs to avoid. FHSU has a tremendous impact on our economy, and now a large portion of those FHSU students don’t feel comfortable returning to the area because of the way the county is handling COVID precautions.
Next to speak was Dr. Cheryl Duffy, an English professor at FHSU. Duffy is a breast cancer survivor, and according to the CDC, anyone with a history of malignancy is considered high-risk. During her time at the podium, Duffy pleaded with the commissioners to consider the lives of those who could die from contracting COVID.
Duffy’s speech really resonated with me. This is because I am immunocompromised. I am someone who is considered “high-risk.” If I were to catch this virus, there is a good chance I would suffer lifelong complications or die. There are thousands of people with compromised immune systems within our community – and with a lot of them, like me, you would not even know they have a health issue. My life is not less valuable or more expendable because I have an underlying health condition.
COVID cases are continuing to rise in Ellis County. As of July 20, there are 34 active cases in Ellis County, with 87 total cases since reporting began, including one death of a man in his 90s.
According to Ellis County Health Director Jason Kennedy, social isolation and distancing is what he believes is the most effective way to keep the virus from spreading in our community. But, in some places, it is incredibly difficult to social distance – so masks are the next best thing. However, Kennedy said implementing a mask mandate at this time is not something he’d recommend.
My question is: Why not? Why is this not the time? A mask mandate at this time would be like taking an Ibuprofen to keep away a headache you can feel coming on. If you wait too long, the medicine won’t be at its strongest when you need it most. If we wait too long to mandate masks, our cases will go up too high to attempt to prevent them.
Then the commissioners spoke. Dustin Roths was the first to ask questions to Kennedy, stating he is “sick and tired of the news trying to turn this into something it’s not.” The other commissioners also lamented the way local news has been reporting on COVID cases. Roths also added that the news reports “hurts our chance at governing.”
I find this extraordinarily ironic. The commissioners want the public to “educate” themselves about the virus, but in the same breath denounce the reporting done by local news. Where is the public supposed to get its news from, if not locally? If the news “hurts” your ability to govern – perhaps you aren’t doing a terribly wonderful job in the first place.
Roths also lamented that the news does not cover enough “good news.”
“They don’t want to talk about the good things we do as a board,” he said. “They are so desperate for us to have bad COVID-19 numbers. I’d like to not have to talk about this every week. The last thing I want is a news camera here every week to try to get an ‘a-ha’ moment and run another article.”
With that statement, commissioner Dean Haselhorst suggested people stop paying attention to news and their attitudes will improve.
“Read something that’s positive and you’ll forget about what’s going on,” he said.
This is not good advice. This is how you end up uninformed. Of course bad news gets more attention, that doesn’t mean good news is being completely ignored. The public deserves to know what their commissioners are discussing. I am terribly sorry, commissioners, that you are sick of talking about how COVID is impacting the community you are here to serve. Imagine how those who are sick and suffering from the virus feel. Imagine how those of us who are high-risk feel.
Along with those comments, Roths made several unproven statements pertaining to the virus, including that “this thing doesn’t affect kids.” Thankfully, though, Roths said his “fatherly instinct” may come out if he thought kids were going to be impacted negatively. I suppose it is time to use those instincts, Mr. Roths, because according to the Mayo Clinic and the CDC, 1.7% of COVID cases are children. This number may seem small until it is your child who catches the virus.
Then commissioner Butch Schlyer spoke. He questioned if there were any clusters of COVID coming from places like Dillons – to which Kennedy responded he knew there were no known clusters related to Ellis County.
“It must be political that they’re doing something like this, same with Walmart,” Schlyer said.
I do not think that a virus cares about your political affiliation.
Schlyer then went on to discuss his 94-year-old father and how he can’t shop at Dillons anymore since he won’t put a mask on because it allegedly affects his oxygen levels.
I cannot speak to the specific health condition of Schlyer’s father. I can, however, personally attest that masks do not affect your oxygenation levels. I have been in and out of the emergency room for the past month because I’m immunocompromised, and I’ve watched my oxygen levels with and without a mask on. My oxygen levels stay consistent regardless of if I have a mask on my face or not. This information is consistent with what most doctors are claiming regarding masks having no impact on oxygen levels.
Schlyer also said he doesn’t like that the Hays City Commission is trying to “take the moral high ground in telling him what’s right” when discussing a mask mandate.
I don’t think this has anything to do with taking a moral high ground. I respect the City of Hays commissioners for taking the health of their community into consideration.
“We (KDHE) talked about social distancing but never about putting a mask on,” Schlyer said, “And that’s because a mask won’t stop a damn virus. That’s just a fact. I spent all weekend researching these masks.”
I would love to see what sources Schlyer used for his research. The mask won’t stop the virus, but it helps contain the spread while we create vaccines or better technology to deal with those infected. I am stunned Schlyer said the masks can impact your oxygen but in the same breath said they are incapable of keeping particles from reaching other people.
Which argument is it? Are the masks hindering breathing by not letting enough oxygen enter or are the masks not effective because there is too much room for particles to pass through? It can’t be both.
Then Schlyer said he is to the point where he is “just deleting everything he gets in his emails regarding face masks.”
A public official proudly proclaiming he is ignoring and deleting the concerns of the people he was elected to serve. That is not only extremely disheartening, it is disgusting.
Regardless of how any individual feels about the masks, the way the county commissioners spoke Monday night was incredibly unprofessional and concerning. From suggesting that community members stop listening to the news to Schlyer openly admitting he disregards emails dealing with a very volatile, current subject, I am worried about the future of Ellis County if we continue to not be proactive about masks.
The county commissioners did not listen to the pleas of those who spoke at the meeting, nor are they apparently listening to the ones who email or call them with concerns. These men were put in their position to serve our community – and they are failing us.