Sedgwick County, Kansas, likely to drop mask mandate this week

Face Mask
Posted at 11:43 AM, Mar 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-23 12:43:11-04

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Officials in one of Kansas' largest counties are considering dropping a mask mandate this week, saying a new pandemic emergency order that is awaiting Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly's signature would open it up to litigation.

The Wichita Eagle reports that Sedgwick County commissioners said the bill essentially strips them and the local health officer from placing any restrictions on businesses for the remainder of the coronavirus pandemic.

Kelly said last week she is inclined to sign it and she urged legislative Democrats to support it as the best deal she could make with a Legislature that is overwhelmingly Republican and conservative.

Sedgwick County officials said the biggest issue is that the bill allows any resident who feels aggrieved by a county emergency order, including a mask mandate, to file a lawsuit - and it tips the scale in court in favor of the challengers. That's because the bill requires the courts to hold hearings on challenges within 72 hours.

If the county were to continue the mask mandate, the likely result would be clogged courts and a loss at the end of the day, Commissioner David Dennis said.

"I don't see that we have much authority left," he said.

Commission Chairman Pete Meitzner said he's also concerned about the potential for widespread litigation arising from the legislation if the county were to keep its mandate.

"I'm not in favor of taking on however many lawsuits or aggrieved people" might file legal challenges, he said.

Commissioner Sarah Lopez, a supporter of the mask regulations, said the legislation is "extremely frustrating" to her, because "the state is trying to dictate everything we do."

"I obviously think taking masks away right now is not smart," Lopez said.

Meanwhile, a Kansas Senate committee considered legislation Monday that would limit what future requirements schools could impose in an effort to mandate vaccines, most notably immunization against COVID-19, The Topeka Capital-Journal reports.

The move comes despite the fact that the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and the Kansas Department of Education have yet to indicate when guidelines for the vaccination of youths might be released.

Currently, there is a laundry list of vaccine requirements for schools and day cares in Kansas and the secretary of KDHE can add new immunizations. But under legislation proposed by Sen. Mark Steffen, R-Hutchinson, those powers would be removed. The current list of vaccine requirements for diseases like Hepatitis A would remain but the ability to mandate shots in the future, including the COVID-19 vaccine, would be transferred to the legislature.

Senate health committee Chair Richard Hilderbrand, a Galena Republican, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that he hopes the committee will vote on the vaccine measure later this week.

He said the issue for him is that he doesn't want to leave such decisions to the state Department of Health and Environment.