ERIE – Neosho County Commissioners rejected any sort of face mask mandate Thursday evening.

The commission voted 2-1 to opt out of an earlier mandate imposed by an executive order from Gov. Laura Kelly in July, and also to opt out of another executive order Kelly issued this week. The orders are intended to decrease the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19).

The commission voted 2-1 Nov. 5 to strike down its resolution opting out of the first mandate, with Commission Chair Gail Klaassen opposed. Thursday, Commissioner Paul Westhoff said he wanted to rescind his vote.

Commissioner David Orr voted against Thursday’s measure to opt out. The commission later passed a resolution to opt out of the governor’s statewide mandate once more.

Before the initial vote, the commission heard from two Chanute residents who opposed the mandate, from a Facebook page administrator who supported it, from the administrator of the county health department, and from the county attorney who said it was unenforceable.

Chanute resident Robert Dickinson said it is clear that masks are not effective and the issue is public compliance. He said discussion has focused too much on masks over hand washing.

Dickinson said the majority of Kansas counties rejected the mandate in July and he said a Facebook poll was handled by a page that is connected to a commissioner and that has censored comments. He said a counter-poll on another page found 70 percent rejected the mandate.

“While masks might work, mandates simply don’t,” he said.

Cindy Morrison, administrator of the We Are Chanute page on Facebook, defended the page and its requirements for posting. She said combining the poll on that page with one on the rival page We Are 1 Chanute, a private page, still had a majority supporting the mandate.

Morrison said a researcher spent an hour each at Walmart and at G&W Foods and found 60 people at Walmart and 28 at G&W wore masks, compared to 68 at Walmart and 35 at G&W who did not.

“We can’t force people to care,” she said. “Some people in Neosho County have blown this out of proportion.”

Chanute resident Owen Higgins said other counties that adopted mask mandates have still seen their case numbers increase.

“It’s not that masks are a horrible idea,” he said, adding that the discussion has stoked fear. “The conversation needs to be had.”

County Attorney Linus Thuston said he personally believes masks are effective, but he does not think the mandate is enforceable because it relies on civil penalties.

“Following the governor’s mandate is to me futile,” Thuston said. “If you’re going to do it, you need to do it right.”

He cited State Attorney General Derek Schmidt who said it was unenforceable.

“The mandate basically has no teeth,” Thuston said.

Klaassen questioned how people would indicate they have medical reasons for not wearing masks.

“Are we going to have yellow stars?” she asked, seemingly referring to the Holocaust.

Thuston said he does not anticipate that enforcing the mandate would create a large number of cases the district court couldn’t handle. He estimated the court is about 15 percent behind this point last year because of the pandemic.

Thuston said he is a survivor of COVID-19, and said it was a near-death experience.

“Before I was rushed to the hospital by ambulance, my opinion was considerably different,” he said.

Klaassen said businesses have a choice to require masks, and customers who are not comfortable can go elsewhere.

Health Department Administrator Teresa Starr said she would support what the commission decides, but she has had calls both ways and the community is divided. She said she and her staff are being tortured and that she is working long hours with no additional pay.

“Either support me or let me go,” she said to the commissioners. 

She said a mask mandate would make her job more difficult and if it passed, she would request a deputy be stationed at her office.

“I’m already getting death threats,” she said.

In other business, the commission voted to allow T-Mobile to switch sector sites on a county communications tower for 911 purposes and approved law enforcement agreements with Thayer and St. Paul. Commissioners received an update on the SPARK coronavirus relief funds, but tabled requests from school districts.

The commission also signed contracts for the courthouse HVAC project. 

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