Several Johnson County mayors want rules that require face masks in public spaces extended to the entire county after municipal leaders approved similar mandates in four cities this week.
The new rules come as COVID-19 cases soar to record highs on the back of the highly contagious omicron variant, which is pushing already strained area hospitals and even morgues to the brink.
This week the city councils of Roeland Park, Mission, Prairie Village and Fairway each voted to implement a requirement that anyone visiting public spaces wear face masks or pay a $25 fine. Those rules take effect Jan. 18 and extend through mid-February.
During an update with top county health officials Friday morning, several of those mayors urged the Board of County Commissioners to enact a widespread public mask mandate as hospital and public health officials plead for help.
“I guess this question is for (County Commission Chairman Ed) Eilert and the commission; in the face of your own expert providing a solution that will save lives, why the commission won’t take action on this issue and protect the county as a whole?” Mission Mayor Sollie Flora said.
The county recorded an incidence rate of 1,939 new cases per 100,000 residents and nearly 31% testing positivity over the past week — far and away the highest numbers recorded since the pandemic began and a 2,000% increase since the end of October, Johnson County Public Health Director Sanmi Areola said Friday.
Face masks are a critical component of stemming that tide, alongside vaccines and boosters, to help health care facilities and workers strained to their limits.
“To be clear, masks work,” Areola said. “Just look at our schools ... once that mask goes away, you can already see, you don’t need to conduct another experiment, you can see we’re already running into trouble because we don’t have that in place.”
But county leaders have been reluctant to re-implement a countywide public masking rule because it was essentially unenforceable, Commission Chairman Ed Eilert said. Under the previous countywide rule, which expired at the end of last April, only about half of Johnson County municipalities agreed to enforce the mandate, neutering its ability to prevent community spread.
“With the vaccination rate as high as it is and with the inability to enforce a mask requirement, the decision was that putting a requirement in place that could not be enforced would not be effective at all,” Eilert told Flora. “There are several cities who put those requirements in place; you have the ability to enforce, and that’s good.”
Last week county commissioners agreed to keep their current mandate requiring face masks in schools that serve children up to the sixth grade, which up until the city councils’ votes this week was the only mask mandate issued in the county. But as students returned to school, case counts and absentees have triggered mask mandates to return to all but one secondary public school through the second week of classes.
Now some major school districts are warning they may have to cancel school entirely with hundreds of school staff absent due to COVID-19 and some already did this week, including De Soto and Bonner Springs Edwardsville. District leaders in Olathe and Kansas City, Kansas, warned Thursday that they could be next and asked parents to begin preparing for that step.
The county commission decided Thursday to make its weekly meetings virtual through mid-February as its own staff deal with more than 300 workers forced to stay home because of positive cases or quarantining — about 8% of the entire workforce — but commissioners have declined to go any further so far.
Prairie Village Mayor Eric Mikkelson noted the cities’ new mask mandates no longer require businesses to enforce the mask mandate and shift enforcement to police officers to issue fines to anyone refusing to wear a mask in an indoor public space. He argued the shift should alleviate the county’s enforcement concerns and pressure on businesses while still making a strong effort to reduce spread.
“This version you’re seeing adopted in substantially identical form across several northeast Johnson County cities now is an obligation directly on the individuals and only on the individuals who are entering a public indoor space, with all the standard exceptions,” Mikkelson said.
“I believe several of the concerns, reasonable concerns, that were raised all along had to do with the impact on businesses and this substantially lessens that,” he told Eilert. “Just something for consideration.”
The loggerheads over a widespread mask mandate follows public health and hospital officials’ dire warnings that soaring COVID cases, of both the delta and omicron variants, are pushing already short-staffed hospitals near their breaking points.
Health department officials are now working with hospitals and the medical examiner about “how to handle excessive death because they are running out of morgue capacity,” Areola said.
“If you listen to the chief medical officers, the first few months of this pandemic they were very careful about what they said, but you can see hearing from them we’re in trouble, we’re in a bad place,” Areola said. “It’s not about fear mongering, it’s about painting the proper picture for you.”
With COVID numbers “exceeding capacity at all levels,” Johnson County Director of Epidemiology Elizabeth Holzschuh and Areola urged officials to do everything they can to mitigate the virus’s spread with all three steps: Masking, social distancing and vaccinations and boosters.