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Kansas governor, GOP legislators agree: Special session not the answer on mask issue

Andrew Bahl
abahl@gannett.com
From left, Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, Gov. Laura Kelly and House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, meet in 2019. Kelly and legislative leaders agreed Tuesday not to pursue another statewide mask mandate.

Top state legislators and Gov. Laura Kelly said Tuesday that the state will work with local governments and ramp up public education on COVID-19 prevention rather than attempt to impose another executive order mandating mask wearing statewide.

The announcement comes after Kelly and Republican leaders from both chambers of the Legislature met Tuesday afternoon amid rising COVID-19 case counts across Kansas.

Their agreement is aimed at averting the potential for a special legislative session, which would be needed to revise current state statute and thus allow Kelly to force counties to require masks.

Kelly extended her mask mandate in July, but counties have been able to opt out under the terms of a compromise between the governor and the Legislature passed during June’s special session. All but 21 counties statewide opted out of the mask mandate.

In a statement, the governor said it is her hope that engagement with local leaders will encourage more mask wearing statewide on a voluntary basis.

That effort, she hoped, would come instead of legislative changes.

“Legislative leadership agreed to work with me through a strategy of engagement with municipalities, counties, and stakeholders to increase the use of masks and mask requirements across the State of Kansas,” Kelly said in a statement. “It is my hope that this bipartisan outreach strategy will avert the need for emergency legislation through a special session.”

GOP leaders cheered the detente, underscoring the long-held belief of many Republican officials that the decision to wear a mask should be left to individual Kansans.

“This is the right thing to do,” GOP House leadership said in a statement. “In the words of the former U.S. Senate Chaplain Peter Marshall, ’May we think of freedom, not as the right to do as we please, but as the opportunity to do what is right.’

Kelly said last week that she saw the meeting as vital in light of increased infection rates in many parts of the state.

Between Friday and Monday there were over 2,300 new COVID-19 cases reported in the state, and rural counties, particularly those in northwest Kansas, have especially been hit hard by the virus in recent weeks.

Kelly said last week her administration was considering “all available avenues” for a solution.

“We need to start these conversations,” Kelly said in a news conference last Wednesday. “We need to come to resolution as soon as we possibly can and not let, as has happened over the last seven or eight months, politics play a part in this.”

A recent study from University of Kansas researchers found that Johnson County’s mask mandate is responsible for 6.5 to 8.5 fewer cases per 100,000 residents each day.

Some counties, generally in western Kansas, opted to impose a mask mandate earlier in the summer after cases began to tick upwards. Statewide, the KU study saw that counties with a mask mandate saw seven fewer cases per 100,000 residents each day.