Gov. Laura Kelly on Wednesday issued a new executive order mandating face masks to combat the rising number of COVID-19 cases. The order will go into effect next Wednesday.
"As COVID-19 continues to spread through Kansas communities and hospitalizations increase at concerning rates, it is clear we must take action to protect our communities and our economy," Kelly said.
Most notably, the executive order specifically targets counties that have opted out of the governor’s first executive order on mask mandates.
A draft of the order states that the order wouldn’t include "counties in which Executive Order 20-52 is in effect, meaning that the county commission has not exercised its authority under K.S.A. 48-925(h) to ’opt out’ of Executive Order 20-52." It would also not target counties that have already created their own mask mandate.
However, the ability to opt out of the governor’s emergency orders is still there. Changing that ability would require a special legislative session.
Instead, this action would put the counties that had opted out of the first mask order under greater pressure. Those counties would have to take formal action soon to opt out of the new order. In short, it would force counties across Kansas to visit or revisit the idea of a mask mandate.
Counties have a week to take action before the new mandate automatically goes into effect.
"My administration recognizes that each Kansas county is faced with unique challenges — and a one-size-fits-all approach can be difficult for some communities to navigate," Kelly said. "The order allows local officials one week to craft and implement their own version of a face covering ordinance that works for them and their communities."
Under the order, Kansans must wear face coverings when inside public spaces, or in situations where physical distances of 6 feet can’t be maintained. They must also wear face coverings when inside any indoor public space, when obtaining services from the health care sector and when waiting for or riding on public transportation or ride-sharing vehicles.
All businesses and organizations in the state must also require face coverings.
Kansans under 5 years old and those with medical conditions preventing mask-wearing are exempt from face covering protocol.
Since Kelly’s last mask order, more than 30 counties and cities have opted into her order or created their own. Most recently, a number of local governments have implemented mask mandates in response to the current COVID-19 surge, such as Dodge City and Lyon County.
That has given hope for the governor that when counties revisit whether to opt out of her second mask order, they will choose not to.
The governor said she spoke with state Republican leaders about issuing this order.
"We had heard from a lot of people, including our own Senate President Susan Wagle, that if we were to put in place another executive order with face-covering protocols, that a number of counties that originally opted out will come back in," Kelly said.
Wagle, a Wichita Republican, told The Topeka Capital-Journal that in the end, she still emphasized local control.
"I have been a relentless advocate for local control and community leaders will still have the final say and will make their own decisions on what’s best for their constituents. I trust they will consider this proposal, listen to health care experts and their neighbors, and do what they think is best. The decision is still in their hands and I will always believe statewide restrictions aren’t the answer," Wagle said.
In addition, the governor formally announced the launch of a public service announcement campaign that will encourage people to mask up and follow COVID-19 prevention protocol. At least $1.5 million has been allocated for that purpose, and numerous stakeholders, including the Kansas Hospital Association, will participate.
The governor is also aiming at creating community conversations to help combat COVID-19. The administration is partnering with the Kansas Leadership Center to mobilize and lead virtual nonpartisan meetings across Kansas beginning the week of Nov. 17 and concluding by late December.
The conversations will involve a number of local leaders, such as pastors, coaches, business owners and community officials, to use their influence to combat the virus.
Kelly’s move comes as many states have upped their restrictions with a huge resurgence nationwide in COVID-19 cases.
The White House coronavirus task force had issued a report to Kansas on Sunday, first obtained by the Center for Public Integrity.
In the report, much of the outlook was grim with "exponential and unyielding spread across the state."
In the past three weeks, Shawnee County had the third-highest number of new cases in the state, following Johnson County with the second-highest number and Sedgwick with the highest. Combined, the three counties represent over 40% of all cases in Kansas.
From Nov. 7-13, the vast majority of counties had 500 or more cases per 100,000 people, a much starker picture compared to the previous month.
The task force recommended that Kansas pause extracurricular school activities, do more to ensure people are wearing masks and increase messaging to the community on following COVID-19 guidelines.
"With nearly all counties in the red zone and nearly 50% of nursing homes having at least one positive staff member, mitigation and messaging efforts need to be further strengthened," the report said.
Kelly said her actions now are crucial with cases rising.
"We have reached a new stage in our fight with this virus, and how we choose to respond can turn the tide for our businesses, our hospitals and our schools," Kelly said.
Capital-Journal staff writer Andrew Bahl contributed to this report.