By Jessie Wagoner
McPherson County Commissioners have decided to opt out of Governor Laura Kelly’s executive order requiring masks be worn in public. Though they will not be enforcing the order they recommend community members still practice social distancing, hand hygiene and mask wearing.
McPherson County currently sits at 81 total confirmed cases of COVID-19, 49 of those cases have met recovery guidelines and 32 individuals are recovering at home. Shailei Shea, director of the McPherson County Health Department spoke at the commission meeting and expressed her concerns about the rapid uptick in cases. With the high number of cases being asymptomatic it makes it difficult for the health department to do contact tracing and pinpoint where the spread is occurring.
Shea says data continues to show wearing masks does help prevent the spread of COVID-19, especially in those cases where individuals are asymptomatic and participating in community activities.
“We know masks work, the data is showing us masks work,” Shea said. “It is unfortunate that mask wearing has turned into a political issue. It is not a political issue, it is a public health issue. Wearing a mask does work.”
Two community members spoke up during the meeting to express their opposition to the executive order requiring masks. Connie Newcomb stated there is still additional information to be gathered about COVID-19 and the seriousness of it. She has questions about the reliability of testing and the reliability of the data. She also said wearing a mask should be an option left to individuals and business owners. She operates a business which she says has been open throughout the pandemic, without masks and they have been fine.
Another community member expressed support for the order and asked commissioners to adopt it. She cited the rapid increase in cases in the county since reopening. She also expressed concern about the importance of children returning to school and how a continuous spread could impact schools having the ability to reopen.
Shea did advise the commission that whether they adopted the executive order or not her recommendations would stay the same; social distancing, mask wearing and hand hygiene. She also advised businesses for years have been requiring shirts and shoes be worn to enter their businesses.
“If shirts and shoes can be required businesses can require masks be worn to enter,” Shea said.
One major factor for commissioners to consider was how to enforce the executive order if adopted. A violation of the executive order is not a criminal violation, meaning law enforcement cannot write a ticket for the violation. Violating the executive order is considered a civil violation and would be referred to the county attorney’s office.
Shea advised law enforcement and the health department already receive numerous calls from people reporting others for not wearing masks or following social distancing. With the executive order in place those calls would likely increase and 911 could become flooded with calls.
Emergency communications representatives said they are legally not able to tell citizens the order is not being enforced. They would have to assign every call to a police officer or deputy, requiring them to go out and take a report even though they could not issue a citation. Commissioners recognized the burden this would put on law enforcement and the likelihood they wouldn’t be able to respond to other calls.
Additionally, the county attorney’s office is already understaffed and underfunded. If the reports were referred to the county attorney’s office it would overwhelm the system. County Attorney Greg Benefiel addressed commissioners and explained the executive order puts county attorney’s in a difficult position because they are not investigators, they are prosecutors.
The executive order provides no direction for how county attorney’s should proceed. Additionally, there is no funding being allocated from the state to support the additional financial burden placed on counties to enforce the order.
After much discussion the commission decided they would not enforce the executive order but would continue recommending mask wearing, social distancing and hand hygiene. Shea will continue to provide direction to businesses and organizations as they move forward with reopening.