Allen County commissioners gave their stamp of approval on the wearing of face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at their meeting Tuesday.
Gov. Laura Kelly had issued the statewide mandate last week. Individual counties, however, can opt out of the directive.
The mandate requires people to wear masks in indoor spaces and in outdoor spaces where social distancing isn’t possible.
Several other surrounding counties, including Anderson and Woodson, voted to opt out of the order or alter its language.
The decision to reaffirm the order came after an intense discussion between commissioners and community members, with about half in attendance for and about half against the mandate.
Commissioners said their decision was based primarily on recommendations from local health officials, and they also emphasized taking whatever steps necessary to keep the county open and prevent a second shutdown.
“We do listen to our medical experts,” said commissioner Jerry Daniels, though he continued to emphasize he wished the language in the order said “strongly recommend” rather than “mandate.”
“We’re trying to do what’s best for the county,” said commissioner Bill King. “Surely we can come together.”
King also said he’d “rather overreact a bit for now … and see how things play out.”
Commissioner Bruce Symes said though he was grateful local infection rates have been low, he added that “Allen County doesn’t live in a bubble,” suggesting that that situation could change.
All told, he said he would demure to health advisers on the issue, and “that’s gonna guide my decision.”
PUBLIC debate on the mask mandate was kicked off by Arlyn Briggs, who said he was “totally against it,” and called the order a “kind of tyranny” enacted by “a governor who’s overstepped her bounds.”
He said “I don’t wash all the time,” but that nonetheless he hadn’t had to visit a doctor in 15 years, suggesting he wasn’t worried about COVID-19; and he further contended that fear of the virus was based on “politics.”
Another resident opposed to the order said having a mandate suggests “Allen County residents are dumb” and not “smart enough to take their own precautions.”
Jennifer Coltrane spoke to commissioners for the third meeting in a row and said she thought attitudes towards COVID-19 were “largely being driven by fear and emotion.” She also highlighted the low number of cases in Allen County, suggesting a mandate was unnecessary.
On the other side of the issue was Dr. Rebecca Watson, who works with the Southeast Kansas Multi-County Health Department.
Watson sent commissioners a letter stating her concern that if there isn’t a mandate in place “we’re basically telling people to do what they want.”
She said a mandate “gives people ground to stand on” for enforcing mask-wearing in businesses and other shared spaces, and that “the simple act of wearing a mask is the best protection we have” against COVID-19.
Watson also said that if the spread of the virus cannot be controlled, “the next step will be another lockdown.”
Also speaking in favor of the mask mandate was Thrive Allen County CEO Lisse Regehr, who said that when people aren’t willing to wear a mask, “we’re not being empathetic … caring about the people around us.”
“I want our businesses open and to avoid a shutdown,” she said. “I encourage us to listen to the health professionals on this one.”
“It’s a simple sacrifice we can make,” added Humboldt City Administrator Cole Herder. “The masks allow us to not stay home and keep the economy going.”
For now, then, the mask mandate stands in Allen County, though it is possible that could change in the future.
“We’re gonna take it week by week,” said Daniels.
IN OTHER news, Russ Baxley highlighted places on Delaware Road in need of repair, and shared a video with commissioners to show the extent of the problem.
Commissioner King was sympathetic to Baxley’s plight, and said the county would help in whatever way possible, likely by tearing the road up and returning it to gravel.
According to Mitch Garner, dust control measures are complete throughout the county, and workers are continuing to mow ditches.
He also said the county’s reclaimer was still down, and that unfortunately it would be almost a month before the necessary parts arrived.
Terry Call said that after staff had moved into the new ambulance barn in Humboldt last week, a minor disaster struck, namely, a sewer line broke. Fortunately, no irreversible damage was caused.
Call and commissioners also raised the possibility of building a rock garden at the new ambulance barn.
For Thrive Allen County, Lisse Regehr obtained a letter of support from commissioners to proceed with building new trail infrastructure along the old Mo-Pac line by the new elementary school and theater.
She also got the green light to put a steering committee in place that would help oversee how $2.4 million in CARES Act funds would be spent throughout the county.
The goal is to “make sure none of [these funds] go back, and our county keeps all of it.”
Regarding the CDBG-CV grant recently obtained by the county, Regehr also wanted to emphasize that interested businesses should apply, but that if they’ve already received EIDL funds, this will disqualify them.
Businesses must also have a Data Universal Numbering System (DUNS) number, or be able to provide evidence that they have applied for one.