County eases virus restrictions

Allen County commissioners decided to "recommend" wearing face mask rather than "mandating" a policy, after Republican lawmakers prevented Gov. Laura Kelly from renewing a statewide mask mandate.

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April 7, 2021 - 10:11 AM

Commissioners David Lee and Bruce Symes discuss local COVID-19 policy regarding masks and senior centers. Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register

The county is easing virus restrictions by partially reopening senior centers and formally adopting a “recommended” rather than “mandated” mask policy.

Discussion on the mask issue linked back to recent decisions at the state level, where Republican legislators prevented Gov. Laura Kelly from renewing a state-wide mask mandate.

Along these lines, commissioner David Lee said, “my understanding is because the governor recommended that we continue mandating masks, and the legislative council rescinded that, rejected her … we’re out there now to make our own decisions.”

And commissioner Jerry Daniels added that “we [originally] decided to follow the state’s guidance, which was a mandate. Now that that mandate no longer exists, there are questions from our constituents, asking: ‘Which is it?’”

Short answer: in Allen County, the mask policy is now a (strong) recommendation, following a 3-0 vote by commissioners.

“I don’t feel that we can mandate at the county level without state guidance,” said Daniels.

Lee added that “If we ‘recommend,’ then everybody’s got their own free agency.”

Commissioner Bruce Symes agreed that “it’s a recommendation, not a mandate,” but added that “I’ll continue to make the health department’s position my position,” that is, “to continue to wear masks in public places, social distance and wash your hands.”

All told, the vote on masks likely does not entail any practical changes in the daily lives of residents. However, it suggests that commissioners, although they strongly suggest virus-safe behavior, are not comfortable with officially “demanding” it.

Along with making an official vote regarding masks, commissioners also voted to reopen county-run senior centers on a limited basis.

Until now, the centers had been open for meals but not for playing cards and other forms of socialization.

The consensus among commissioners, however, seemed to be that if health guidelines were followed, socialization activities could again resume.

For instance, commissioner Daniels said “I’m comfortable with … [following] our recommendations and cleaning, that we reopen them on a limited basis (while defining limited).”

Details of said “limitations” are forthcoming.

In other news, Lisse Regher, CEO Thrive Allen County, outlined some differences between Thrive’s existing transportation program and the county’s new program.

She mentioned that Thrive’s program facilitates free rides to obtain any safety net service, including destinations like the doctor’s office and grocery store.

Staff from Thrive Allen County provide commissioners with an update on transportation programs and grants. Photo by Trevor Hoag

The Thrive program is also not limited to in-county rides, and so can take folks, for example, to specialist appointments in Pittsburgh or Wichita.

The county’s new program, based on a 5311 grant, will soon provide free rides to almost anywhere in-county (with very minimal restrictions).

Data from the Thrive program suggests that residents will likely use the county program to travel: within Iola (71%), eastern Allen County (9%), Humboldt (8%) as well as traveling into Allen County from somewhere else (12%).

Regehr likewise brought up an additional transportation grant (through the organization National RTAP) she thought looked promising for the county to pursue.

She added that one need that this and other programs like it speak to is “providing transportation for shift workers at all our industries,” given that “one of the bigger problems [local companies are] running into is getting employees to work.”

During his weekly report, public works director Mitch Garner said crews had been doing some patching repairs in Humboldt on 9th Street near the drug store.

He also mentioned the area near 1800 and Nebraska Roads, where heavy truck traffic has been causing damage.

“We really need to put that back to gravel,” said Garner. “We’re putting asphalt in there and it’s just coming back out.”

Hence he hoped that, weather permitting, work could begin on the area as early as next week without having to close any roads.

There was also some discussion about the possibility of purchasing/renting a new road patching machine for the county.

“I think that would be a good investment for us, so please keep shopping,” said commissioner Bruce Symes.

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