After a five-hour marathon meeting, Douglas County commissioners approved a new public health order that is now in effect.
The order mandates that children ages 2 to 11 — those who are too young to get the COVID-19 vaccine and therefore are at increased risk of contracting the respiratory virus, particularly with the more contagious delta variant rampant — wear masks in indoor public spaces, with some exceptions.
Dozens of public commenters, most of them opposed to the new mask mandate, shared their views during the meeting. About half a dozen had submitted written comments ahead of the meeting, all in support.
The first man to come to the microphone Wednesday evening attempted to draw comparisons to the Holocaust. Others simply commented on the grossness of masks worn by small children for extended periods of time.
Some said their kids were enrolled in school and were set to start the next day, but they would be unenrolling them Wednesday night if the mandate passed. One Baldwin City mother spoke about her daughter, who had “cried so many times over losing her friends” when she pulled the girl out of school because of masking last year.
“She’s been over the moon, to be back at school for two days,” the mother said. “For me to have to come back now to tell her that she’s going to have to be pulled from school is heartbreaking.”
Others seemed a bit confused about the commission’s role and authority, including one woman who said the Legislature can make laws but the commission can only make recommendations, which is untrue.
Several commenters did thank the commissioners for considering the mandate and encouraged them to pass it. A University of Kansas employee who said she has a postdoctoral degree in population health said there’s a “perfect storm” coming, with both K-12 schools set to begin and university students resuming classes soon.
Douglas County health officer Dr. Thomas Marcellino said after all the public comment that he thought it would be worth some discussion on the mandate for kids ages 2-5. That was another sticking point for some commenters, including some who supported a mask mandate for kids ages 5-11 — those who may fare better wearing masks. However, Marcellino said that as a doctor he was not willing to go against the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Dr. Jennifer Schrimsher, an infectious disease specialist at LMH Health, echoed another point Marcellino made: “This is not about being punitive; this is not about enforcement,” she said.
“We should have grace, absolutely. But we should strive for something,” she said. “My personal opinion is that we should try to get everyone 2 and above masked.”
Ultimately, as Douglas County Commission Vice Chair Shannon Reid summed up her position, she reflected on some of the more dramatic comments people had made.
“When we speak about imposing on people’s liberties, when there are comments comparing this mask mandate and public health order as a measure for mitigating risk of an infectious disease,” she began, “when we compare that to nazi Germany and to internment camps of Japanese Americans in our country, those are false equivalencies.”
Reid said she believed that “these health orders are responsive to this moment in time, rather than reactive to a further escalated crisis.”
Commission Chair Shannon Portillo said she thinks it’s important for the commission to move forward with the best science they have, and to be “as preventative as possible.” She also noted that many community members have concerns about bullying.
“There are quite a few folks who are worried about not setting this norm of masking and then asking their children to go against that norm,” she said, “and that’s been incredibly compelling to me as we’re having these conversations.”
And Commissioner Patrick Kelly said he understood that there were big issues in play — “It’s things like authority versus freedom. Does an elected authority have the ability to set public health mandates, or is that an individual’s freedom? Those are big ideas.”
But he noted that the Kansas Legislature has made a new law that school districts can only provide up to 40 hours of remote learning per student. (Read more about that here.) Any student who needs to quarantine could lose out on significant school time, which could cause “tremendous harm,” he said.
Balancing out the big issues, Kelly said, he leans toward a mask mandate to make sure that people are safe in schools and beyond.
After the unanimous vote to approve the mandate, many left the historic courthouse jeering the commission.
According to the text of the order, children ages 2 to 11 will be required to wear masks in the following settings:
- Inside, or in line to enter, any indoor public space
- Obtaining services from the healthcare sector in settings, including but not limited to:
- A hospital, pharmacy, medical clinic, laboratory, physician or dental office, veterinary clinic, or blood bank (unless directed otherwise by an employee or healthcare provider)
- Waiting for or riding on public transportation or while in a taxi, private car service, school bus, or ride-sharing vehicle
The order will be in effect until 11:59 p.m. Sept. 22, unless commissioners act to rescind or modify it before then.
Exceptions to the order do apply, including those with a medical condition, mental health condition, or a disability that prevents them from wearing a mask, though no specific examples are cited in the order. Children in the 2-to-11 age group who are deaf or hard of hearing (or communicating with a person who is deaf or hard of hearing) where the need to see a mouth is essential for communication are also exempt from the order.
Other exemptions, as with past mask mandates that applied to the entire Douglas County community, include when the child is engaged in a religious service or ceremony or when eating and drinking in a restaurant. Read the full order at this link.
Updated to add video at 5:12 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 19: