By Chance Swaim and Dion Lefler
Tribune News Service
Kansas could soon be under a statewide mask mandate aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus as the state draws nearer to 1,000 COVID-19 deaths and case counts explode in rural Kansas counties.
Since late May, Kansas has been under a patchwork of local coronavirus restrictions after the state Legislature stripped Gov. Laura Kelly of most of her executive authority to issue public health orders, leaving all 105 counties to determine their own COVID-19 responses.
On Wednesday, Kelly announced she plans to negotiate a bipartisan mask mandate with state legislative leaders before the upcoming election. The move would signify a major shift from a patchwork to a more unified statewide response.
“People don’t have time for us to wait around, to let an election be over with,” Kelly said. “We need to start these conversations, we need to come to resolution as soon as we possibly can and not let — as has happened over the past seven or eight months — not let politics play a part in this. Let’s just finally do the right thing for the people in the state of Kansas.”
Kelly’s plan could be a hard sell to Republicans who are campaigning in opposition to Kelly’s initial response to the pandemic when she ordered a statewide shutdown to nonessential businesses and was the first governor in the country to order schools closed in March.
County commissions have been empowered under a recent change in state law that gives them the authority to control local measures during a public health emergency.
“I’m going to have conversations with House and Senate leadership to determine a way that we can go forward and get masks worn all across the state of Kansas,” Kelly said Wednesday at a news briefing on COVID-19.
She said the discussions with legislative leaders will focus on “let’s work together to create a mandate, and then what parameters will surround that mandate.”
The announcement came as the virus spread accelerates throughout the state. This week’s reports from the White House COVID-19 task force rank Kansas as the 17th-worst rate of new cases, the 10th-worst positive test rate and the fourth-worst death rate.
On Wednesday, the KDHE reported 1,488 new COVID-19 cases, 85 new hospitalizations and 80 more deaths — setting a new record for the most deaths in a single report. A majority of those were identified through a review of death certificates.
Much of rural Kansas — where opposition to government pandemic restrictions has been the strongest — is now experiencing an explosion in cases and the positive test rate.
More than 80% of the state’s counties are in the red zone for the rate of new cases. Norton County in northwest Kansas has the highest rate of new cases compared to its population. The rate of 5,409 new cases per 100,000 people over the past two weeks is more than 36 times the red zone threshold for reopening schools.
House and Senate leaders from the Wichita area could not be reached for comment. Jim Howell, a Sedgwick County commissioner and former state legislator, watched the governor’s news conference and said he doesn’t think a statewide mandate is going to happen.
“She says she’s going to do this bipartisan, but I’d be really surprised if she got the Senate to go with that,” he said. “I don’t know how she gets there.”
He noted Kelly said 90 counties’ commissions opted out of her original mask order and he doesn’t expect that to change.
Under state law, county commissions have final authority over whether COVID rules take effect in their jurisdiction.
“I would be surprised if the people who represent those counties would support a policy to go against what they’ve already verified through affirmative votes,” he said.
On Wednesday, Howell proposed Sedgwick County’s general mask requirement be trimmed back and that only food handlers would have to mask up.