City to consider mask mandate

Meghan Flynn
Rachel Svaty addresses the Finney County Commission on Monday on a mask mandate as cases continue to rise in the county. Svaty told the commission that counties with a mandate have had a 50% reduction in COVID-19 spread.

The Garden City Commission considered a petition put forth by Lindsay Byrnes to implement a citywide mask mandate at Tuesday’s regular board meeting.

No action was taken at the meeting. However, the commission will hold a special session at 10 a.m. Nov. 11 to consider putting an ordinance in place requiring the wearing of masks.

Byrnes is the Finney County medical director, but said she put forth the petition neither as an employee of the county health department nor is she speaking on behalf of the county. She did so as a physician and someone who’s invested in the community.

Byrnes said she created the petition because cases of COVID-19 are increasing dramatically and masks are an effective deterrent to stop transmission of the virus.

A mask mandate is not a personal freedom issue, Byrnes said, as nobody’s freedom is being taken away. It’s about protecting people.

“I understand the pressures that other people have as leaders of their organization ... But our recommendations and our messaging despite our very best efforts have yet to spur the action that we need,” she said. “I wish we had time for a task force to get everything together, but we don't. We're in a crisis today, and I promised my colleagues that I would pull every emergency brake I could, and that's what I'm doing.”

Colleen Drees, Finney County Health Department director, during the public comment period also spoke on the proposed mandate.

Drees said she’s concerned about the increase of cases and what it could mean for the community. Something needs to be done to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

“Frankly, what we're looking at with numbers, how everything is going, it's very alarming moving into holiday season, moving into flu season, with the numbers that we're seeing currently,” she said.

What’s currently being done is not working, Drees said. One reason may be lower general compliance over time to the recommendation that people wear masks.

“When you feel uncomfortable (wearing a mask), eventually you start to get relaxed and then you go into store, you're like 'eh, they're not wearing masks either, so this time I'll just run in real quick.' You just keep pushing the bar, you keep getting a little more relaxed,” she said. “Seeing the general community spread that we're seeing right now would give us indication that potentially distancing or masks are not prevailing.”

Andy Flemer, interim CEO of St. Catherine Hospital, also spoke at the meeting. He was not asking for the mandate, but spoke about the stress the hospital has been under due to the increase of COVID-19 cases.

The hospital is the sole community provider and hospital with ICU beds around, Flemer said. It has eight ICU beds, which have been full mostly with COVID-19 patients. However, they still have a responsibility to take care of everybody else.

“I'm concerned about our hospital because I have almost 40 associates out due to COVID now, and most of them have had it through community acquired, not being in the hospital,” he said. “They're not getting sick from working, because there they're wearing masks, and if they're in a patient room they're wearing ... N95 masks, gowns and gloves, so it's actually safer for them to be in the hospital than to be out in the community.”

The influx of cases has caused a staffing issue, because so many employees are out due to COVID.

“We need to be able to take care of our community and anybody that walks in our doors,” he said. “They'll definitely be safe and they'll feel safe, but we're getting at a critical point at our hospital with so many associates out due to COVID acquired in the community.”

While he didn’t ask for the mandate, Flemer wanted to encourage the Three W’s — wear a mask, wash your hands and watch your distance — because those three together are a proven public health mitigation strategies.

Rachel Svaty, a family physician at Plaza Medical Center, gave her support to the mask mandate petition.

COVID cases have been increasing over the past month, Svaty said. Thirty percent of the cases in Finney County have occurred in October.

This is concerning because, as cases increase, they can typically expect to see hospitalizations increase, Svaty said.

“Hospital systems in some other states such as Utah have already begun to create criteria on how to ration care in the scenario that they do not have enough hospital or ICU beds available,” she said. “Kansas does not appear to be far behind these locations in our numbers. I don't know about you, but the thought of any doctor having to decide who receives care and who does not receive care, makes me sick to my stomach.”

Health care workers have been doing everything to provide the best possible care, but there are not enough of them to keep up with case rates if they continue to climb, Svaty said. The community has to do more to help slow the spread of the virus, and a mask mandate is one way to do so.

A study published by the University of Kansas looked at the rates of COVID-19 spread in Kansas counties who adopted the governor’s mask mandate on July 3 vs. those who did not. Counties with the mandate showed a decrease in cases 14 days after it was placed, Svaty said. Cases in those counties held steady, while those who did not mandate masks steadily increased.

“Overall, it was showed that counties with a mask mandate have a 50 percent reduction in spread,” she said. “Keep in mind that this data is truly Kansas data, this is about us, it shows us that mask mandates do help.”

Steve Karlin, USD 457 superintendent, also spoke at the meeting.

He expressed concern that the school district would have to move to operational Level 5, hybrid learning where half of students would be learning from home while the other half were in-person, or Level 6, remote learning, if the increase of cases is now slowed.

That would impact the community as parents of students work and all of a sudden students would be at home.

COVID-19 has also impacted the district as it has had 113 staff members and 87 students test positive.

“We're grateful that the danger to students both in terms of the number of students testing positive and that being low ... However, the impact on adults at school is becoming very concerning,” he said. “We need adults healthy and at school in order for the school system to provide services that we provide. Not only teachers and parents, but all those people I mentioned before, play an integral part of the services that we deliver to students.”

Jim Carlson, managing partner at Stilwater Technical Solutions, spoke against a mask mandate.

Carlson’s firm is a nonpartisan, for-profit public policy advisory firm.

As someone who had COVID-19, Carlson said he’s not against masks. However, a mandate is not the way to go as it could cause legal issues, he said.

“I have no doubt that Dr. Byrnes believes that a governmental order from this commission would be beneficial to the community,” he said. “But I also believe this petition brings with it broader and more foundational policy questions that are actually spilling out over America and that policymakers need to actually look at the broader perspective.”

James Dumermuth, Garden City counsel, said that if the mandate would go into effect, it would only affect people within the city limits.

“It would depend on the extent of the ordinance as it’s drafted, but it would be anywhere within the city limits generally unless specific exemptions are included,” he said.

The mandate seems similar to the indoor smoking ban; it would affect “essentially anywhere indoors within the city limits,” Dummermuth said.

The City Commission chose to hold a special meeting at 10 a.m. Nov. 11 to consider creating an ordinance and to flesh out the details if they chose to enact it.

Commissioner Roy Cessna said one of the details that needed to be figured out if they adopted the ordinance is the time constraints for it.

“If the ordinance is written or put together right, there needs to be a time constraint or sunset, and some way of measuring this so we understand that if it’s working, we can remove it or if its not working we can continue moving on with it,” he said.

Enforcement of the ordnance would also have to be discussed.

Garden City Police Chief Michael Utz said he spoke with police chiefs in other cities that have a mask mandate in place on what the best way would be to handle enforcement.

“The messages that I got from all of the chiefs was make sure that we continue pushing the community outreach and education, have masks with us — if we find someone not wearing a mask, offer the mask up, they refuse and then it's probably an enforcement action,” he said.