Gov. Laura Kelly’s mandate on everyone having to wear masks in public is causing consternation among the public.
The how-tos won’t be released until sometime Thursday, which makes responding to the mandate even more difficult, since many people will already be out of town for the Fourth of July weekend.
The Cowley County Commission was hoping to meet Thursday afternoon to decide on their course of action in response to the mandate, but commission chair Wayne Wilt said commission counselor Mark Krusor told them they could not take any action until they actually see the document, which he didn’t think would be out before late Thursday. Wilt said the commission will hold a Zoom meeting at 9 a.m. Friday at the courthouse because the other commissioners will be out of town.
“I’ve had more response to this mandate than I’ve had to anything during all the years I’ve been in public service,” Wilt said.
Most of those who have contacted him directly have been against the mandate; only a couple of people so far have been in favor of it. He said he’s been impressed by the people’s reasoning — no cranks yet.
Sen. Larry Alley, R-District 32, of Winfield, said he thinks the governor has “overstepped her boundaries” in issuing the mandate. According to an earlier decision, the governor turned over the public health decision-making to the county commissions and the county public health officers and she now seems to be taking back that authority, Alley said.
“I’ve heard several county commissions have already met and do not intend to enforce the mandate,” he said.
Alley said he has not worn a mask himself because he “can’t get a medical decision from anyone about what type of mask prevents COVID-19.”
He said he hopes the governor’s mandate will make clearer who has to wear a mask, and he hopes that information is “based on common sense.”
“I can’t comment on the mandate because I haven’t seen the executive order,” said Cowley County Public Health Officer Thomas Langer.
Langer said he didn’t understand why the governor would hold a press conference to announce the mandate, but provide no details about it for several more days.
“Last week I spelled out the changes that would be taking place June 29 so there would be no confusion, no questions. Why can we do that at the county level, but not at the state level?” Langer asked.
Businesses and public institutions — even individuals — have the right to require that anyone on their premises wear a mask, Langer said, but as the public health officer, “I have not been given the authority to impose my will on anyone who is not sick. I can take people who are not well and send them home,” but he cannot order them to stay there. And he cannot tell people who are well that they must wear masks, he said.
“My office does not have the manpower to become the mask police,” Langer said, nor does he think other public safety agencies have that manpower.
He said the mandate is “well-intentioned, but not well thought out.”
He also said the county needs to look at the state of the pandemic locally. Cowley County has a population of 35,000 and 25 current coronavirus patients.
“We went from four at the end of May to 71 at the end of June, but the number to look at is the active cases: from 40 to 25, and hopefully it will continue,” he said.
Langer also said with the large increase in testing, the facts that the illness seems to be leveling and the hospitals are still strong mean to him that “we’ve done well.”
Only Arkansas City Mayor Karen Welch, of the public officials contacted for this story, seemed to think the order necessary. She said she thinks the people at the governor’s office know more about the situation than do the public at large and would not make such a ruling unless they thought it was necessary.
“When I go out in a crowd, go to the store, I wear a mask,” Welch said. “I follow the rules.”
She also said if the local health department recommended it, she was willing to go along with it.
She mentioned the many complainers on Facebook.
“Before the pandemic,” she said, “they didn’t even know the health department existed.”
She praised Langer for the “wonderful job he is doing” and she said, “People have to take the warnings to heart and trust in the community” to work to keep them safe.