PHOTO IMAGE BY DANIEL CAUDILL
Effective immediately, people in Wichita are required to wear masks in businesses and other public areas after the city council issued a new ordinance on Friday.
Wichita Mayor Brandon Whipple called a special meeting Friday afternoon to discuss the ordinance with the city council. Whipple said he wanted to take action after the Sedgwick County Commission voted 3-2 Thursday to overturn Gov. Laura Kelly’s statewide mask mandate, despite evidence that COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the county.
“I was beyond disappointed to see a majority on the County Commission fail to act in the interest of public health of our community this afternoon,” Whipple said Thursday in an email announcing the special meeting. “Wichita cannot afford another shutdown, and the best protection against another shutdown is to practice social distancing and to wear a mask in public when social distancing is difficult to maintain.”
Sedgwick County currently has no regulations in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus, instead relying on the initiative of businesses and individuals. County commissioners were able to overrule the statewide mask order thanks to a bill signed by Gov. Kelly that curbs her authority and puts more regulatory power in the hands of county leaders.
As of Friday afternoon, the Sedgwick County Health Department reports 1,432 confirmed cases of COVID-19. There have been 28 confirmed coronavirus-related deaths in the county and 737 recoveries. The county has tested 31,478 people for the virus.
City council members heard from a panel of local doctors and health experts at the meeting, all of whom expressed support for the mask mandate. The panelists expressed concerns that without a mask mandate, Wichita hospitals could see a strain on the amount of ventilators and ICU beds available.
Pediatric specialist Dr. Rebecca Reddy said a mask mandate could help Wichitans return to “normal routines and activities.”
“I strongly support a universal mandate on masks, so that we can protect one another and slow the spread,” she said. “If we do not mandate masks … we will not be able to return to school; we will not be able to have high school football games.”
Gov. Kelly cited concerns about students returning to school in the fall as one of the primary motives behind her statewide mask order.
Sedgwick County Commissioner Lacey Cruse, who voted against the move to overturn Gov. Kelly’s mask order, also spoke at the meeting.
“We see that recommendations don’t work. If a recommendation did work we wouldn’t see a spike in cases that we’ve seen thus far,” Cruse said. “I ask you most of all to vote for a common sense solution because wearing a mask is an easy way to protect others. Most importantly, the vulnerable in our community.”
Cruse and Whipple both said it was important to pass a mask ordinance before the Fourth of July, fearing that it could be “too late” if the city waited until after the holiday to enact a mask requirement.
The ordinance applies to any indoor or outdoor space that is open to the public. It does not include residential property, private workspaces or other areas closed to the public.
The ordinance provides exemptions for a number of situations and groups of people, including:
Those eating or drinking at restaurants, as long as six-foot social distancing is enforced
Children under five years old
Those with mental health/medical conditions or disabilities that prevent wearing a mask
Those who are hearing impaired or are interacting with people who are hearing impaired and must be able to see the mouth to communicate
Athletes participating in organized activity, as long as six-foot social distancing is enforced
Individuals or organizations convicted of violating the ordinance face a $25 fine upon a first conviction, a $50 fine on a second conviction and a $100 fine on any subsequent convictions.
The ordinance is set to end Aug. 11, but the council has the authority to repeal, modify or extend it.
Councilmember James Clendenin, of District III, said he was concerned that Kansas statute gives local health boards, not city councils, the authority to regulate public policy to prevent the spread of infectious disease.
“This really does lie with the county commission,” he said. “We have quite a can of worms that we’re going to open if we were to pass an ordinance that was unlawful.”
City Attorney Jennifer Magana shared a different opinion, saying the council has the authority to pass a mask mandate through “home rule authority.”
“This is operating under the city’s home rule authority, which derives from the Kansas Constitution,” Magana said. “This is separate and apart from any statutory scheme.”
Councilmember Bryan Frye, District V, made a motion to defer action on the ordinance until Tuesday, saying he felt the council didn’t have enough time to review the ordinance — which was drafted Friday morning.
He also echoed Councilmember Clendenin’s concerns that the council might not have the authority to regulate public health policy related to the coronavirus.
“I find the entire ordinance extremely vague, with no ability to provide regulatory guidance,” Frye said. “The lack of details, especially as it relates to due process, enforcement — it feels like a one-size-fits-all approach.”
Frye’s motion failed 3-4.
The city council orchestrated public comments by separating constituents into separate conference rooms and allowing the speakers to virtually join the meeting.
Aaron Mounts, a student at Wichita State, said a mask mandate could help prevent businesses like his workplace from going out of business during a second lockdown. He also said he feared for his personal wellbeing, as a person with pre-existing health conditions.
“If a mask mandate is not ordered, I will possibly lose my job and because of other people’s negligence, I could possibly die. And you all have the power to prevent that, so use it.”
The ordinance passed 4-3, with Councilmembers Frye, Clendenin and Jeff Blubaugh opposed.
Click here to watch the city council’s special meeting in full.