KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, Board of Commissioners voted, 8-2, to reinstate a mask mandate – with some opt-out options– despite several residents speaking in opposition to the move.
"We have a loud bunch of folks… but I’m not going to let opinions overwhelm my education and follow what the medical profession tells me is the right choice," said Commissioner Jane Winkler Philbrook, who is an optometrist and holds a doctorate in optometry. "So this is not easy, and actually I think it sucks… [but] I’ll be more than happy to step up to the plate when it comes to a mask mandate."
The approved motion included an amendment to opt out all county school districts, as well as the towns of Edwardsville and Bonner Springs. It went into effect around 2 p.m. Friday and is in place through 11:59 p.m. on Sept. 16.
Resident Ned Kelley, who addressed commissioners during public comment, said the public is being told they are "not scared enough."
"They want you to be more scared," Kelley said. "Everything Dr. Stites and all the medical experts gave us tonight is, 'We’re not scared enough. We need you to be more afraid.' I’m not saying that flippantly. It’s true."
In a presentation to the board, Dr. Steve Stites, chief medical officer for the University of Kansas Health System, reiterated to commissioners that masking can help slow the spread of the more-infectious delta variant. The seven-day average of COVID-19 cases, according to data Stites presented, includes 1,115 new positive cases in the metro.
"Delta is new and different and very bad and we need your help. We are frightened," he said.
Resident Stephanie Barton said that as citizens they have the responsibility to hold elected officials accountable.
"We have the right to choose and you are taking away our choice… We are absolutely capable of making our own choices," Barton said.
Rachel Jefferson told the board via Zoom that she appreciated the mask mandate being considered "as someone who has known people who have died of this virus."
"It's extremely important that we protect the welfare of each other… We all have the right to make personal choices, but this is not one of those times where it’s a freedom issue," Jefferson said.
Rev. Tony Carter, of Salem Baptist Church, said he is concerned for his 10-year-old granddaughter, who is not yet eligible to be vaccinated.
"The fact that somebody makes a choice to not be vaccinated or not to wear a mask or just ignore all of this because of their freedom is not good enough because we’re all in this together," Carter said.
Health officer Dr. K. Allen Greiner recommended the mandate that, with some exemptions, will require people in Wyandotte County to wear masks in public spaces, health care settings and on public transportation.
This is the recommendation to the board tonight: @KSHB41 pic.twitter.com/kSQa2FWmlZ— Nick Starling (@NickStarlingTV) August 6, 2021
Greiner told commissioners that while health leaders feel masking indoors is "extremely important," that doesn't mean they will stop advocating for vaccinations.
Stites reiterates that masking can help slow the spread of the Delta variant, shown on this graph. @KSHB41 pic.twitter.com/mSULQQUaal— Nick Starling (@NickStarlingTV) August 6, 2021
Stites also said the KU health system turned away 33% of patient-transfer requests in July.
"That pains us so much because we know those are people who need us, but we can’t take care of them," Stites said. "And this is both COVID and non-COVID."
Public health officials said prior to the meeting that with a vaccination rate of just 35%, “consistent and correct indoor mask usage is the next best form of mitigation against COVID-19.”
Meeting is underway as the Wyandotte County Board of Commissioners will likely vote on an indoor mask mandate in the county. It’s mostly virtual but the public is allowed inside the lobby in the building and can speak. @KSHB41 pic.twitter.com/42IHUttnYt— Nick Starling (@NickStarlingTV) August 6, 2021
With this new order, businesses in KCK will need to adjust.
"The sign that we had last year we’re just going to pop it back on the door," said Geraldine Romero, owner of Caribe Blue Restaurant.
During the last mask mandate, Romero said for the most part, people complied.
"It’s not hard for me to let somebody know, hey, if you want service you’re going to have to wear it if not, you can step out—respectfully of course," he said.
The Kansas City, Kansas, Board of Education will require masks for students, staff, parents and visitors in school buildings for the 2021-2022 school year.
Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Dr. Jane Philbrook is a medical doctor and incorrectly identified Ned Kelley. It has since been corrected.