Will Kansas have a new mask mandate? Gov. Laura Kelly leaves COVID decision to counties and schools

Jason Tidd Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Gov. Laura Kelly walks with Lee Norman, secretary of Kansas Department of Health and Environment, to a press conference to give updates regarding the COVID-19 delta variant Wednesday at the Statehouse.

Gov. Laura Kelly said Wednesday that she will leave the issue of re-implementing mask mandates up to Kansas counties as COVID-19 cases have begun to rise markedly throughout the state.

But she did announce new mask wearing requirements, set to begin next Monday, that mandate state employees and those entering state buildings wear a face covering if social distancing is not possible, regardless of vaccination status. Legislators at the Capitol will likely be considered exempt from the mask requirement.

The news comes a day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised its mask guidance. Everyone is now advised to wear a mask indoors in areas with high levels of community spread, regardless of their vaccination status.

That implicates much of Kansas, with the spread of the delta variant causing a rapid uptick in cases, with Health Secretary Lee Norman warning of a trajectory where hospitals are rapidly filling up across the state.

More:How bad is the new delta-fueled COVID-19 surge in Kansas? Here's what the numbers show.

But Kelly said she would leave the thornier question of more sweeping mask mandates to local governments, noting that "the path forward in this fight has to start at the county level." She did not say if she was considering issuing any statewide orders or authorizing another COVID-19 emergency declaration.

"We are really not focused on that at all, we are focused on getting vaccine in the arms of people," Kelly said at a Statehouse news conference.

Gov. Laura Kelly points to a map showing the level of community transmission of COVID-19 in Kansas during a news conference Wednesday at the Statehouse. Cases and hospitalizations have risen in the state in recent days, largely fueled by the delta variant.

Court ruling puts Kansas COVID-19 response in flux

The state's COVID-19 response has been thrown into flux after a Johnson County District Court judge struck down a sweeping law, passed earlier this year, designed to increase oversight on local and state governments in their handling of the pandemic.

Judge David Hauber declined Tuesday to pause his ruling while the matter is being taken up on appeal, meaning local health officers now have the ability to again issue mandates on mask-wearing and capacity restrictions for bars and restaurants, among other items.

Kelly also has more flexibility in issuing a new COVID-19 emergency declaration or issuing statewide virus mitigation orders. Further complicating matters is the fact that some elements from a 2020 law dictating the pandemic response expired earlier this year.

More:Kansas, local health officials have more power in COVID-19 response after judge won't pause ruling

That has left top state officials confused as to what the current law states.

"It would sure be nice if we knew what we were operating under," Rep. Fred Patton, R-Topeka, and chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said.

Whether local governments elect to use their newfound freedoms to require mask wearing remains to be seen.

Johnson and Wyandotte counties are set to address the matter in meetings tomorrow and could follow in the footsteps of their larger neighbor, Kansas City, Mo., who reissued their face covering requirement Tuesday night. 

Lawrence-Douglas County, Shawnee County and Riley County all issued statements recommending that people heed the CDC — although those are not requirements.

Patton noted any county who wanted to reimpose restrictions would be treading on politically dangerous terrain.

"Just the political environment, whether they have the authority to do so or not, my hunch is many counties are not going to order you to wear a mask," Patton said. 

Any effort from Kelly to issue statewide orders would also likely be met with extensive pushback from Republican lawmakers, to the point where legislators could even move to convene a special session to overturn a potential executive action.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who is running in the GOP primary to challenge Kelly next year, said in a statement that Kelly and other officials should "respect individual liberties and trust Kansans to make decisions for their families." 

Senate President Ty Masterson echoed that sentiment in a statement, blaming the CDC and Kelly's administration for the "wrong message at the wrong time."

"The incoherent and inconsistent advice from government means Kansans are now fearing a return to the malaise of mandates we emerged from months ago," Masterson said.

Kelly said the deaths caused by the delta variant have largely been avoidable.

"Playing politics with this disease has caused confusion, and ultimately suffering and death," she said.

More:How does the new CDC mask guidance on COVID-19 affect Kansas counties? For 80% of us, it's time to mask up.

Gov. Laura Kelly didn't issue a statewide mask order but rather issued a mask mandate to state employees and those entering state buildings wear a face covering if social distancing is not possible.

Further guidance on school mask-wearing to come, Kelly says

No Kansas counties currently have a mask order. The last county to lift its mask mandate was Wyandotte County in late May, according to the Kansas Health Institute.

Researchers Donna Ginther and Carlos Zambrana at the University of Kansas Institute for Policy & Social Research found that mask mandates were associated with fewer cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

The study, published June 23 in the peer-reviewed Journal of the American Medical Association, examined COVID-19 rates through December. Counties with mask mandates had a 60% reduction in cases, a 60% reduction in hospitalizations and a 65% reduction in deaths.

The research found that masks mandates saved an estimated 500 lives.

Kelly also promised further guidance on what actions schools should take to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 later this week.

More:Looking for the latest on COVID-19 in Kansas? Our state government podcast has you covered

The CDC guidelines Tuesday recommend all K-12 students and teachers wear masks, regardless of vaccination status. Districts are increasing considering similar requirements, with Salina Unified District 305 announcing they would join Shawnee Mission School District in Overland Park in mandating widespread mask wearing in the fall.

While vaccination rates remain lower in Kansas than the nation as a whole, there have been signs that more residents of delta variant-impacted states have sought out the shots in recent days.

Kelly noted the frustration that many vaccinated Kansans were feeling at the state of the pandemic but warned the delta variant was moving throughout the state "like wildfire" and that a course correction was required.

"I'm as frustrated as any other vaccinated Kansan, I feel like I did my part and one of the rewards of that was not having to wear a mask," Kelly said. "But that option has now been taken away because of the delta variant."