County debates mask mandate

Allen County commissioners discussed Gov. Laura Kelly's executive order requiring face masks to be worn in public. They acknowledge enforcement would be difficult.

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Local News

July 1, 2020 - 10:08 AM

Southeast Kansas Multi-County health officer Rebecca Johnson, from left, discusses Gov. Laura Kelly’s new executive order requiring facemasks with county commissioners Jerry Daniels, Bill King and Bruce Symes. Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register

In a packed room with almost 30 in attendance — though only a few wearing masks — county officials grappled with Gov. Laura Kelly’s new executive order requiring that face masks be worn in indoor public spaces and at outdoor functions where social distancing cannot be maintained.

As the order takes effect on Friday at midnight, some time remains to determine details following from the order, which commissioner Bill King described as a “hot-button issue.”

King also said “there’s some concern about who has the final word,” that is, whether final authority regarding the order is determined by the governor, county commissioners or county health officials.

King neatly summarized the ensuing debate by asking: “Do we have to follow [Gov. Kelly’s] order? … What latitude do we have?”

Commissioner Jerry Daniels said he thought the order was “almost impossible to enforce,” and that he “hopes it’s a recommendation not a mandate.”

He added, though, that if a business owner requested that its clients wear masks, then that was his or her prerogative.

On the issue of authority, commissioner Bruce Symes said that his understanding was that final authority rested with commissioners but that he’d heed the advice of county health officials.

More generally, he said “I’m not in the role of dictating how people go about their lives,” and “right now, this isn’t a law.”

Hence, he said he was “not prepared to interpret” the governor’s order as a strict mandate, and that his “position right now is status quo,” suggesting that he did not want to use the county’s authority to mandate the governor’s order.

County health officer Rebecca Johnson suggested that she thought the final authority regarding a mask mandate rested with her.

She said: “I believe that if I make an order for the county then the county would have to follow that,” and said that she hoped commissioners would join her in making a “public service announcement” recommending that people follow said order.

As for enforcement of the governor’s order, county counselor Bob Johnson said: “Counties can opt out. There’s already been a few that said they’re going to, but you have to present specific findings.”

When asked whether commissioners planned to pursue such an opt-out, they said it was too early to say.

In terms of legal enforcement for the order, Sheriff Bryan Murphy said that following the mask mandate would not be a criminal matter.

“No, nobody’s gonna be arrested,” he said. “Nobody’s gonna be cited. Nobody’s gonna be anything.”

IN OTHER news, along with Iola Mayor Jonathan Wells, commissioners signed a joint city-county proclamation officially recognizing July 5 as “891st Day” in Allen County, in honor of National Guard troops who will deploy for Kuwait on that day.

Thrive Allen County’s $7,500 fee for administering the CDBG-CV grant will be pulled from general county funds as opposed to the grant’s funds ($132,000), in order to maximize the amount of money available to eligible businesses.

Thrive CEO Lisse Regehr said that $2.4 million would soon be awarded to Allen County through the CARES Act on July 15.

As a work plan for implementation must be in place by Aug. 15, the county may have Thrive administer these funds along with the CDBG-CV grant, but commissioners will have the final say regarding allocation.

Some possibilities for how funds might be best spent, according to Regehr, included infrastructure to assist with online learning and other COVID-19 related expenditures.

Speaking of expenditures, the county accepted a bid for $2,200 from Murray Construction, LLC to make repairs to the restroom at the Humboldt Senior Center.

They also accepted a bid for $3,021.13 from Ozark Rescue Suppliers, Inc. to purchase wetsuits, boots and other supplies related to water rescue.

The new ambulance station in Humboldt is essentially complete, with move-in to begin soon, and with the possibility of a (virtual) grand opening next week.

Road graders will not operate on July 15 or 16, as county workers are scheduled to receive equipment operation training on those days.

Dust control measures are currently being taken across the county, and work should be complete by today.

ACMAT’S Family Safety Night has been canceled due to COVID-19, but the organization still plans to do its school supply give-away. Details are forthcoming, but a drive-through pick up event is possible.

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