Despite outbreaks, many in Pittsburg and Manhattan refuse to wear masks

Riley and Crawford counties have seen big spikes in the number of COVID-19 cases. Even so, most eschew the advice to wear face masks.


State News

June 26, 2020 - 4:50 PM

Beginning Monday, June 29, all staff, faculty, students and visitors at Pittsburg State University will be required to wear a mask while on campus, the university announced Thursday.

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A spike in reported coronavirus cases has prompted a northeast Kansas community to take a step back in reopening its economy and led the commanding general of a nearby U.S. Army post to restrict soldiers’ visits to a popular bar and restaurant district.

Riley County’s health officer this week issued an order reimposing a 50-person limit on public gatherings, limited bars and restaurants to 75% capacity and mandated that they screen employees for coronavirus symptoms daily. Those restrictions are set to remain in place through July 6.

But an even more dramatic increase in Crawford County in southeast Kansas tied to an outbreak at a bacon-processing plant isn’t prompting local officials to go back to previous restrictions. 

My theory on it is it’s the flu on steroids and the only way it’s going away is once everybody’s had it.

Robert Wilson, owner of the Pitt bar in Pittsburg

Many people in both communities aren’t wearing masks when they go out in public or venture into stores, local residents said Thursday. At the Pitt bar in Pittsburg in Crawford County, most customers aren’t and haven’t really worried about the coronavirus, owner Robert Wilson said.

“My theory on it is it’s the flu on steroids and the only way it’s going away is once everybody’s had it,” he said.

Kansas saw coronavirus cases increase 20% during the two-week period that ended Wednesday, up more than 2,100 to nearly 13,000. A 505-case jump from Monday to Wednesday was the largest in more than six weeks.As of late May, Gov. Laura Kelly has left final decisions on reopening to the state’s 105 counties. 

Crawford County saw its cases increase from nine to 220 — a 2,344% jump — because of the SugarCreek bacon plant north of Pittsburg. About 150 people working at the SugarCreek plant tested positive for the novel coronavirus, said Crawford County Commissioner Jeremy Johnson. 

Yet the outbreak is not putting enough stress on the local health care system to warrant restrictions, he said.

“I will regularly go into the store and will be only one of only a handful of people that are wearing a mask,” Johnson said. 

Meatpacking plants have accounted for more than 3,100 of the state’s coronavirus cases or 24%. Nursing homes also have been hit hard, accounting for 900 cases and 149 of the state’s 261 reported COVID-19 related deaths or 57%.

The Kansas City Star reported that more than 60 nursing homes were close to running low on N95 masks and 11 didn’t have enough as of the first week of June. At least 55 were approaching insufficient supplies of gowns and 47 soon wouldn’t have enough surgical masks, according to federal data summarized by the Kansas health department. 

Meanwhile, in Riley County, reported cases more than doubled during the two weeks ending Wednesday, from 70 on June 10 to 156 on Wednesday.

And about 90% were in people aged 18 to 24, and most had spent time in the Aggieville district near the Kansas State University campus. 

“This is a huge red flag,” Manhattan Mayor Usha Reddi said. “We probably need to consider a whole lot more precautions.”

At nearby Fort Riley, the commander of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division, Maj. Gen. John Kolasheski, has directed its soldiers to stay out of Aggieville between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. 

Reddi proposed requiring people to wear masks in public a few weeks ago, only to see the idea blocked by community opposition, but she says it should be discussed again. 

“We have, I think, relaxed a little bit, become a little complacent,” said Aaron Estabrook, another Manhattan city commissioner. He said while he wears a mask when visiting stores and other public places, many people do not.

You’re still a carrier even though you may not have symptoms. That’s the scary thing.

Julie Gibbs, Riley County health officer

None of the new Riley County cases have required hospitalizations. While the coronavirus can cause severe illness in older adults and people with existing health problems, most infected people experience mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in two to three weeks.

“You’re still a carrier even though you may not have symptoms,” said Julie Gibbs, the Riley County health officer. “That’s the scary thing.”


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