ERIE – Neosho County commissioners voted to opt out of an executive order to require face masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19).

Health Department Administrator Teresa Starr said the recommendation encourages wearing face masks, but said a mandate is hard to do.

Gov. Laura Kelly signed an executive order Thursday to require face masks in public places, although counties can opt out. Labette County has also opted out of the order and Allen County has let it go into effect. Parsons City Commission has the decision on its agenda for Monday night’s meeting.

County Counselor Seth Jones said the commission could allow the mandate to take effect if the commission took no action, but prepared a resolution to opt out.

Starr said Neosho County has had a total of 35 cases, including three to five people who have been hospitalized.

There have been no deaths reported for Neosho County. Three died in Montgomery County and one in Crawford County. The Crawford County commission will meet Tuesday.

Commissioner Gail Klaassen said the mandate is not enforceable and schools could regulate themselves.

“It’s not the government’s place,” she said.

Commissioner Paul Westhoff said he felt the decision should be county by county. Commissioner David Orr, who wore a face mask at the meeting, said the county level cannot police the mandate and he felt it infringed on personal rights.

“It’s a personal choice,” he said. “The small business owner cannot afford another shutdown. Quit feuding and fighting over this. It’s not a big deal.”

Orr made the motion to opt out, which Westhoff seconded and it passed unanimously.

“The wearing of masks is a good idea,” Klaassen said. “We’re just not mandating it.”

Klaassen said she received more calls on the mask issue than she did about the wind farm. She also paid tribute to Starr, 911 Director Lori Nally, and Emergency Management Director Melanie Kent-Culp.

“These three ladies have been incredible,” Klaassen said. “It’s a very difficult time and we’re dealing with very difficult situations that we haven’t dealt with before.”

In other business, the commission discussed the SPARK and CARES Act programs to provide financial relief from the virus.

The governor’s Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas program will provide $3.2 million in federal funding from the Coronavirus Act, Relief and Economic Security act to Neosho County out of a total of $400 million coming to Kansas. This is the first round of funding from the program.

Kent-Culp said the county has until Aug. 15 to create a plan on how to spend the money, which the state then must approve. Klaassen said the first round will be used for the needs of the county, schools, cities and hospital, while an expected second and third round will go to local businesses.

Later in the meeting, Klaassen asked departments to come up with specific needs that the coronavirus has caused.

Commissioners also approved an application form for businesses seeking aid through the Community Development Block Grant program for COVID-19 assistance. County Clerk Heather Elsworth showed commissioners a version of the application Chanute is using, and county commissioners set funding at up to $10,000.

Applications will be available Tuesday and must be submitted by 4:30 pm July 31. The application review will be announced later.

Elsworth also reported on precautions against COVD-19 that will be taken during the upcoming primary election Aug. 11. She said voting stations will be supplied with sanitizer, shields, pens and other supplies.

Commissioners also discussed whether to seek bids for culverts, and voted to get bids on river gravel to be used experimentally on Gray Road. Westhoff said he thinks the rock will be available for less than 25 cents a ton.

Orr showed fellow commissioners phone pictures of the construction of a low-water crossing near 70th and Irving. Westhoff said the finished crossing was a foot lower than anticipated, and Road and Bridge Director Mike Brown said officials discovered an error that was then corrected.

McNally reported that Chanute’s dispatching system started for police and the fire department Monday. She said the opening went very well from the county’s side, and transfers went smoothly.

Orr also reported that an audio hiss reported on video of county commission meetings was coming from the courthouse air conditioning system interference. The commission is in the process of replacing the system.

Klaassen reported on discussions she had with officials about a radar-activated system of warning lights for the Neosho Ridge Wind electric-generation project. She said the approval process involving the Federal Aviation Administration requires six months, with an additional seven months for parts. The system would cost from $1 to $2 million in addition to an annual maintenance fee.

Klaassen said since the project is close to completion, they should see what the actual effects are.

“We know what the options are now,” she said.

The commission made a temporary reappointment of Neosho Memorial Regional Medical Center Board of Trustees treasurer Bruce Mullins until August and retroactive to March. The reappointment of Mullins and trustee Bruce Jackson was due in March and delayed by the pandemic.

The commission heard from resident Shirley Estrada about the video system. She criticized Orr for last meeting’s discussion on the low-water crossing and supported the windmill warning lights.

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