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Gov. Kelly continues push for statewide mask requirement

Titus Wu
The Topeka Capital-Journal
Gov. Laura Kelly walks past posters displayed her Kansas Unified Testing Strategy following her press conference Wednesday at the Statehouse.

After a meeting between Kansas legislative leaders and the governor, the two agreed to reach out to local leaders first to ask them to implement their own mask mandates.

But what if cities and counties say no? The governor is still intent on pursuing a statewide mask requirement.

“If we are unable to convince communities to voluntarily implement a mask mandate, I will move expeditiously to find another way to implement a statewide mask requirement,” the governor said in a news conference Wednesday.

Currently, counties can choose to opt out of the governor’s current mask mandate. To change that ability now would require a special legislative session.

Kansas has surpassed 1,000 COVID-19 deaths and this week saw back-to-back record-breaking case numbers in a reporting period. On Monday, the state saw the highest number of new cases in a reporting period at nearly 2,500, but that was broken by Wednesday’s tally, at over 3,300.

With that urgency in mind, having people wear masks is crucial, the governor said.

“Counties with no mandate have seen infection rates climb,” Kelly said, referencing a University of Kansas study which showed spread slowed down in counties with mask orders.

The governor said she has hope that after reaching out, and with the rising cases, counties are in fact willing to change their minds and implement mask orders.

Already, the lieutenant governor is on a “mask up” tour, having traveled to northwest Kansas, where COVID-19 has heavily impacted communities, she said.

“He said that a number of the [county] commissioners are starting to see the light and are really reconsidering,” she said.

The governor also said she was very open to having conversations with local leaders on implementing a mask mandate.

“Is there a way that they can put a mask mandate in that works for them?” she said. “If these counties... can come up with some modifications to the mask mandate that would work for them, we’ll partner with them.”

The state will reach out first, however, to the League of Kansas Municipalities and Kansas Association of Counties, who represent all of the state’s cities and counties, respectively.

The governor will face likely resistance from some local officials. Some smaller cities have told The Topeka Capital-Journal there is no need for them to have masks, even when their counties opted into the mandate. In Ford County, commissioners even rejected a state grant in fear that accepting it would conflict with the county opting out of statewide orders, such as the mask mandate.

But Kelly will continue her push.

“It’s clear that until a vaccine is available and widely deployed, mask usage is one our most important strategies for keeping Kansas schools and businesses open,” she said.

Gov. Laura Kelly updates the state on COVID-19 cases Wednesday at the Statehouse.