MISSION, Kan. (AP) — Kansas counties already had started dropping or weakening mask rules before lawmakers toppled Gov. Laura Kelly’s newly reissued order requiring them — and more are expected to follow suit even as variants first detected in South Africa and the United Kingdom have been found in the state.
The order, which was similar to one passed in November, was always porous, allowing the state’s 105 counties to set their own possibly less restrictive rules or opt out of the order entirely.
Kelly, a Democrat, was required to reissue it Thursday under a new Kansas law, which also gives eight top legislators the power to reject her efforts to set rules to address the pandemic. The lawmakers took just hours to overturn it on a party-line vote, leaving counties that hadn't set their own rules without mask requirements.
Even before the vote, a growing number of counties had started dropping mask requirements, Kimberly Qualls, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Association of Counties, said Friday. The number opting out rose from 42 in November to 51 in mid-February, Qualls said. Several have taken action since then, although exact numbers aren't available.
“I have a feeling that it is going to be a lot of counties” that will be dropping their mandates, she said. “Just from what we have seen already, just from the counties that took action before yesterday.”
One reason was that the same rules that made it possible for lawmakers to overturn Kelly's mask order also allow residents and businesses objecting to pandemic restrictions to trigger a lightning-fast 72-hour review by a judge. The burden of proof falls on officials to demonstrate that their rules protect public health in the least restrictive way possible.
Commissioners in Sedgwick County, the state’s second-most populous, cited the threat of litigation in voting last week to do away with all remaining COVID-19 restrictions.
“I don’t see that we have much authority left,” Commissioner David Dennis said at the time.
In Shawnee County, commissioners also cited the legislation this week when they took action that allows businesses, churches and nonprofits not to require masks. The county seat of Topeka will require masks in city buildings, though. Reno County, where Hutchinson is located, took similar action last week, although it will continue to require masks at the courthouse.
Additionally, many counties had mask orders in place only because they took no action to opt out of Kelly’s November order. Now they will need to pass their own rules if they want to require masks, and it is unclear whether they will do so.
Republican lawmakers have criticized Kelly throughout the pandemic, suggesting she overreacted by imposing a statewide stay-at-home order for five weeks last spring and closing schools.
Now with case numbers down and more people getting vaccinated, they say it is time to leave the decisions to local officials. According to state data, 29.8% of the state’s 2.9 million residents had received at least one shot as of Friday. The number of cases increased by 501 to 302,873 from Wednesday to Friday, and the number of deaths by 19 to 4,932.
“People in each locality understand their situation more than anybody else in the state,” said House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, of Wichita, in explaining his reason for ditching the order.
But new threats are emerging: State health officials announced Friday that a variant first identified in South Africa had been detected in Kansas for the first time. The infected person is from Finney County. The variant is a source of particular concern because of doubts about whether all vaccines currently available are fully effective against it. Another variant first identified in the United Kingdom previously was detected in several Kansas counties.
“I know that all of us are ready to get back to normal, but wearing a face-covering will help protect ourselves, our loved ones, and our neighbors from the new COVID-19 strains that are wreaking havoc in other states,” Kelly said.