ICYMI: Hays City Commission votes to extend mask mandate

BY CORIE LYNN

Attended by supporters and opponents alike, the Hays City Commission met Thursday evening with the goal of considering an extension for the city’s mask mandate. The meeting was preceded by a week of large COVID-19 case growth in Ellis County.

Ultimately voting in favor of extending the mask mandate until Oct. 5, the commission’s vote was split 3-2 in favor of the mandate.

“That case growth is because people are tired of mandates,” said Jason Kennedy, Ellis County Health Services director. “They’re tired of making good choices. They’re tired of the virus. We don’t get that option right now.”

Kennedy made the address to the commission during Thursday’s meeting.

Kennedy was the first of several speakers attending the meeting to discuss the possible extension of the Hays mask mandate. In his report, he emphasized to the commissioners that the spike in positive cases took place not due to the masks being ineffective but because of noncompliance to the mandate.

“If we don’t plan this, the public will continue to get less and less involved in mitigation measures,” he said. “Mitigation measures only work on two factors. Widespread adoption. The public has to believe in either the measure or the individual telling them to take the initiative. Right now, there’s a large group of people that don’t believe in either one of those.”

His report described a dramatic increase in cases in Ellis County the week preceding the meeting, rising to 18 cases per day with 77% of those cases being among 17- to 24-year-olds.

Following the report, Hays Mayor Shaun Musil allowed five citizens to speak for three minutes each on why they opposed the mask mandate.

Each brought their own concerns to the microphone, with several concerns about local government making decisions for them and citizens not knowing how to wear masks.

“Nobody is wearing it right,” said Tammy Werth, a high-risk patient who recovered from COVID-19. “They’re wearing it because they don’t want conflict and it’s a mandate. That’s not what we need here. We need a choice. We need people to wash their hands. We need people to stay home when they’re sick.”

While addressing the commission, citizens also expressed concern about the possible psychological effects masks had on children.

Having been invited to speak before the commission that night, Dr. Amy Hogan of Salina also spoke as to why she did not support a mask mandate.

“Those children take about 50 to 80% of their communication, not by the words that we speak, but by the actions and emotions that are expressed by our faces and our bodies,” she said. “So when we have the entire community masked, unfortunately we’re seeing the children are now having after effects. We’re seeing psychological effects in children.”

In a statement read by Musil, however, Dr. Heather Harris of Hays advocated for masks’ prevention of spreading contagious droplets.

“It could save a life or prevent an individual from spending weeks or months recovering from COVID. Masks are not the entire answer but part of the answer. Our goal, until we get a cure or vaccine for COVID, is to decrease exposure and the number of individuals that could become ill from COVID,” Harris said in her statement.

In their discussion of the mandate, the commissioners each expressed disappointment and shock of the Hays community’s handling of the mask mandate and the division the issue caused. 

“This has been a shocking and sad week in Ellis County with how people have treated each other[,]” Commissioner Ron Mellick said. 

One person was escorted from the meeting after vocally disagreeing with a motion to extend the mask mandate through the rest of 2020. That motion was later amended.

Though divided on the issue, the commissioners agreed the community needed to reunite and be deliberate in enforcing the mandate.

Though the main focus of the evening was the discussion and the vote on the mandate, the city commission also heard a favorable report on the July 2020 Financial Statement, presented by Director of Finance Kim Rupp.

Following the vote, Assistant City Manager Collin Bielser gave his progress report, which included updates on street repair around the city, historical plaque restorations and plans to continue area historic church tours virtually.

In addition, he reported construction on the north Vine Street corridor remains on schedule.

“They’re now officially on North Vine Street, and they’re 14 percent done with the job,” Bielser said.

Before the meeting concluded, the commissioners gave their final comments on the evening, reiterating the need to be respectful of one another and moving forward through the mandate.

“We have to be parents,” Musil said. “We have to be above this, people. We’re a dang good community. We will get through this.”

On Friday night, personal property of Musil’s was vandalized at his home.

But the mayor remained positive in a Facebook post and asked people not to stoop to such levels in supporting him and the commissioners.

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