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Starting Friday, Johnson County Will Require Face Masks To Be Worn In Public

N95 particulate respirator masks (left) block at least 95% of small airborne particulates in the air. However, they are still in short supply and should be reserved for medical workers. Surgical face masks (right) are most effective at protecting others from the wearer's droplets.
N95 particulate respirator masks (left) block at least 95% of small airborne particulates in the air. However, they are still in short supply and should be reserved for medical workers. Surgical face masks (right) are most effective at protecting others from the wearer's droplets.

A sharply-divided Johnson County Commission voted Thursday to require people to wear masks in public, following Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly’s statewide mask order in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Commission voted 4-2 in favor of the mask mandate, with Commission Chair Ed Eilert, Janee Hanzlick, Becky Fast and Jim Allen in support.

Dissenters were Mike Brown and Steve Klika. Michael Ashcraft abstained.

“Wearing a mask during a pandemic saves lives,” Commissioner Becky Fast said, adding that masks will help the county keep the virus under control and allow businesses to stay open. “Masks will save our economy too.”

Brown was highly critical of the decision and of Kelly’s statewide order, saying it’s a “political joke.”

“You’re creating a flashpoint,” he chided his colleagues. “It is reckless.”

Kelly’s order takes effect Friday and remains in effect until rescinded. It calls for Kansans to wear face coverings in public places across the state. It is a sweeping directive affecting most indoor public buildings and outdoor areas, although young children and people with medical conditions that prevent mask use are exempt.

Read "Here's What You Need To Know About The New Mask Mandate In Kansas"

But county leaders around the state have the authority to alter or overturn the directive. And even where the mask mandate applies, people who don’t comply won’t face arrest or criminal charges.

Thursday’s vote means Johnson County joins most other metro area communities in requiring masks for the time being.

Klika and Brown expressed skepticism about how serious the virus spread is in Johnson County and argued a mask requirement is neither justified nor effective.

Klika also asked Eilert, “How are we going to enforce it and who’s going to enforce it?”

Eilert responded that he has spoken to Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe about that very issue.

“The emphasis will be on education and asking for cooperation,” Eilert said.

As of Thursday morning, Johnson County had reported a total of 1,816 positive COVID tests and 38,899 negatives, for a 4.5% positive rate. The county has recorded 88 deaths.

Johnson County health officials strongly endorsed the mask mandate during Thursday’s commission meeting.

Sanmi Areola, director of the county department of health and environment, told the commission that Johnson County did an effective job of controlling the virus spread during stay-home orders this spring. But he said the numbers have spiked alarmingly since the economy started opening back up after May 11.

Since early June, Areola said, the number of positive cases has grown from 20 per week to more than 60 per week. The county most recently recorded 106 cases in a 24-hour period. Spread is particularly prevalent among young people ages 20-39, he said. That’s a change from the early pandemic days in April, when the elderly were most affected and the median age of people infected was 52.

Areola said the increase in positive cases cannot simply be explained by increased testing, and community spread is occurring.

“We cannot afford to not control this now,” Areola warned. “If we don’t, the impact will be huge.”

Johnson County Health Officer Joe LeMaster agreed. He described the current virus spread situation as a “train wreck that is happening in slow motion.” He urged the commission, which also serves as the board of public health, to act now to protect the public. Requiring masks would also allow schools to open safely later this summer, he said.

“Your positive action to ensure universal mask use in Johnson County will allow the school districts that which they need to be able to reopen much more safely,” he said. “This will also safeguard the hospital system which will otherwise need to cancel elective procedures.”

Brown and Ashcraft questioned the data, worried about “sample bias” based on who is getting tested, and said they were unconvinced that the spread poses a dire situation.

Klika argued the county shouldn’t give in to panic and jeopardize the economy. He said the county should work to protect the vulnerable who are at most risk.

“The rest of the population, we have to at least allow it to run its course,” he said.

About 40 people spoke at the commission meeting, with opponents of the mask mandate outnumbering proponents about 2-to-1. Opponents, including some in the medical profession, said they doubted the science on the merits of masks and they wouldn’t succumb to fearmongering about the virus.

Dave Trabert of Overland Park spoke for many in acknowledging the serious COVID health issue. But he said the medical advice to wear masks needed to be balanced against the loss of civil liberties and the need to protect personal freedom.

Al Frisbee of Merriam spoke for mask proponents and pointed out that people wear seatbelts and bike helmets without question. He said the value of masks to protect citizens is real.

“It’s not about freedom,” he said. “It’s about health care and the economy.”

Like the rest of the metro area, Johnson County had a stay-home order that began in late March but started to ease business and community restrictions on May 11. Everything in the county was allowed to fully reopen as of late May.

The Johnson County Commission’s decision on Thursday aligns with mask mandates that have also been issued in Kansas City, Missouri; North Kansas City; and Wyandotte, Jackson and Douglas counties. Those communities also have seen a spike in cases that has health officials concerned.

Starting Sunday, July 5, Clay County will allow certain businesses like retail stores to move from 50% occupancy to 100% occupancy, if they require all customers and employees to wear masks. That order is set to last through July 20.

Platte County strongly encourages masks but has not currently adopted a requirement.

Kansas City’s mask order took effect Monday and runs through at least through July 12 although that date might be extended. North Kansas City’s took effect Thursday and also runs through July 12. It includes both customers and employees of business establishments, including grocery stores and public transit.

So far the metro area has had more than 8,300 positive COVID cases and more than 240 deaths.

While Kelly has issued a mask order for the state of Kansas, Gov. Mike Parson in Missouri is resisting such a call for a similar sweeping action in his state and says he is relying on people to exercise personal responsibility.

Copyright 2021 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Lynn Horsley