Don Chilito's openly defies mask mandate in Johnson County

Posted at 5:34 PM, Nov 18, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-18 18:34:10-05

MISSION, Kan. — Since the mask mandate went into effect in Johnson County, the district attorney's office has made 18 site visits to businesses for non-compliance complaints.

District Attorney Steve Howe said of those 18 businesses, all but one have complied.

Don Chilito's Mexican restaurant in Mission, which is a family-owned business by Barry Cowden, has not followed the mandate.

Cowden said he believes the mandate is an encroachment on civil liberties.

"It’s supposed to be a free country, and we can make our own decisions with what we do in our lives and in our businesses," Cowden said.

Cowden said despite scientific evidence that shows masks help reduce the transmission of COVID-19, he won't require his employees or customers wear them.

"I don’t believe it," Cowden said. "I don’t think that there is any science that proves that."

Cowden said he has taken other steps to keep his workers and customers safe such as increasing sanitizing efforts and spacing out tables.

The district attorney's office sent an investigator out to the restaurant in June after receiving several complaints.

"He presented me with a five-page order from Governor Kelly, and I gave him my response, which is exactly what I’m giving you... I feel it’s an encroachment and a violation of my civil liberties and rights," Cowden said.

Cowden said he asked what the consequences would be and said he was told there were none at the time. Since then, he said he hasn't received word from the DA's office about any consequences or action moving forward.

Howe said it's unclear what enforcement should look like for the mandate because there's no legal precedent to guide him.

"When the legislature passed that law, basically saying prosecutors had to, if they found a violation, examine whether or not to file civil action, I've been having my lawyers look at what type of civil action can we actually bring under what provisions," Howe said.

Howe said he prefers the enforcement to be education and information, which has worked for every other business except Don Chilito's.

The district attorney said there may be new information about enforcement coming out of Thursday's Board of County Commissioners meeting.

"Then we'll have a better idea of whether that's fines or can the county health director also have within their authority to close the business, but I don't think that's really the strategy people want to use," Howe said.

Since Cowden doesn't know what type of enforcement is headed his way, he isn't sure how he'll respond. He's considering closing his restaurant doors rather than follow the mandate, but he also said he may take a different route.

"I care about my employees, so if that’s what we have to do I suppose we'll do that. If I do wear a mask I will of course wear it in protest, and I’ll only do it where need be to protect my livelihood and that of my employees," Cowden said.