By JOHN SHELMAN
Arkansas City commissioners met in a special session Friday to discuss a statewide executive order from Gov. Laura Kelly mandating facial covering to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The mandate requires all Kansas residents to wear face coverings when in public when social distancing isn’t possible.
The commission participated in a statewide conference call with Kelly and several state officials who gave a detailed overview of the impact the virus has placed upon the state.
The mandate does allows local governments to retain the authority to issue and enforce equal or more restrictive provisions or even choose to opt out, but City Attorney Larry Schwartz said the option to opt out only applies to the county.
“Only the county can opt out,” he said. “The reason for that is because the county covers the entire area.”
Schwartz said a decision to opt out would remove the requirements stated in the Governor’s order for the entire county.
Cowley County commissioners have scheduled a special meeting for 9 a.m. Tuesday to discuss Kelly’s mandate.
City Manager Randy Frazer said Friday that any action the city decides to take would be dependent on what the county decides to do. He said if the county doesn’t opt out, the city would have to follow the mandate.
Frazer said if the county does opt out and if the commission wanted to abide by and enforce the mandate, it could institute an ordinance.
“You can do like Winfield did, but it will have to be equal or more restrictive than what the governor has,” he said.
Police Chief Dan Ward said he was not in favor of forcing compliance. He said Winfield has a mask ordinance that is not being enforced. He said in his opinion, having an unenforced ordinance would be a dereliction of duty.
“I won’t take that stance,” he said. “I won’t go that direction.”
Ward said the governor’s order and its enforcement is a civil matter and not a criminal matter, and would not fall under police jurisdiction. He said the order excludes people with health issues, but doesn’t define what those are.
“There is no enforceability here,” Ward said. “How do you prove that somebody has a health problem?”
Schwartz said most people do not know the difference between criminal and civil matters and that police would get called regardless. He said there was nothing in the order as written that makes it enforceable.
“If you look at the governor’s order, there is nothing in there,” he said. “If you look at Winfield’s ordinance, the enforcements are there.”
Ward said enforcing an ordinance would also take a lot of time and effort. He said nearly 50 percent of his staff is currently unable to work and he needs those on duty to be available to cover emergencies.
“We don’t need this kind of stuff adding to the officers’ problems,” he said.
Frazer suggested that if the county does opt out, the commission could put a resolution in place using the same language as the governor’s order, but replacing the words “shall” and “must” with “should” and “may.”
“It’s kind of like the marketing campaign,” he said. “It’s a beginning to urge people to do the right thing.”
Mayor Karen Welch said rather than use force, the commission needs to appeal to residents with the message that wearing protective masks is the right thing to do.
The commission early this week approved a public relations campaign called Crushing Covid that will attempt to persuade residents to wear face covering and take other measures as the disease spreads rapidly in the city and county.
“We have a war going on; we are in the middle of a battle right now,” Welch said. “They should be willing to come forth in the middle of this disaster and ask how they can help.”
Commissioner Scott Rogers agreed. He said it is necessary to make the public understand the importance of coming together to take the necessary actions to stop the spread of the virus.
“It’s about your family, your neighbors, your businesses,” he said. “It’s about kids getting back to school, the nursing homes getting healthy and keeping hospitals from being so overwhelmed.”
The South Central Kansas Medical Center board of trustees approved a policy this week requiring employees to wear masks and establishing consequences if they don’t.
The new policy also gives illustrations of the proper way to wear a mask and stated that employees who did not wear a mask correctly, or who were in the building without a mask, would be reported to administration.
Employees would be given a verbal warning, followed by a written warning, which could lead to termination if the offense was repeated.
Trustee Kanyon Gingher took exception to the provision for termination. She said she did not think administration should be looking to terminate employees amid all the problems caused by the pandemic.
CEO Jeff Bowman said that the hospital was not implementing the policy in order to terminate staff, but to meet state requirements. He said the facility could be forced to close for noncompliance if employees were spotted without masks during an inspection.
The board also approved a policy requiring employees to have their temperature taken before entering the building.
Bowman said that upon arrival at any hospital entrance, the employee’s temperature must be taken and several screening questions will be asked. The policy applies patients and visitors, too.
Employees who refuse or attempt to avoid the screening process also will be subject to verbal and written warnings and possible termination.
Both policies were unanimously approved by the board.