As COVID-19 continues spreading across Kansas, Gov. Laura Kelly said Wednesday she wants to work with legislative leadership to develop a bipartisan plan for a statewide mask mandate.
With two-thirds of the state’s COVID-19 cases now outside of the Kansas City and Wichita regions, Kelly said she wants to renew efforts to adopt a statewide mask mandate that has already been set aside throughout most of the state.
“Harmful, anti-mask and anti-science rhetoric has politicized our ability to tackle a public health issue, much of it coming from our elected leaders,” Kelly said.
“The public health experts and scientists have done their homework, and they’re all saying the same thing,” she said.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re in Norton County or Johnson County, we can stop this virus if you wear masks, follow good hygiene practices, socially distance and avoid mass gatherings,” Kelly said.
There have been 74,456 positive COVID-19 cases reported in Kansas and 952 deaths.
In July, Kelly issued a statewide executive order requiring masks in indoor public spaces as well as outdoors if social distancing of at least 6 feet couldn’t be maintained.
However, about 90 of the state’s 105 counties opted out of the order, complicating efforts to keep the spread of the virus in check.
Kelly acknowledged there are political difficulties associated with efforts to get a mask mandated adopted statewide, especially with the election on Nov. 3.
“I know there are political challenges for legislative leadership, and there are some Kansans who won’t be happy that I’ve tried to do this again,” she said.
A spokeswoman for the Senate president’s office said leadership in that chamber had not yet been contacted about meeting with the governor to discuss a new mandate.
Already, Senate President Susan Wagle showed little interest in working with Kelly.
“I’ve stated all along, and I still believe a one-size-fits-all option doesn’t work for our diverse state,” Wagle said in a statement.
“Local leaders have done a great job in dictating local responses after public hearings and discussions with their constituents,” she said.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr. said he would be willing to meet with the governor.
House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins questioned the governor’s sincerity.
“If the governor was truly concerned about finding common ground and keeping Kansans healthy, she would have reached out to legislative leadership before making a grand pronouncement,” Hawkins said.
“Instead she once again chose to negotiate through press conference,” he said. “The governor’s approach makes for fine political theater but does not make for good policy discussion on how to keep Kansans healthy.”
Since counties started opting out the mask mandate in July, the number of COVID-19 cases has increased to almost 75,000 from about 15,000 while the number of deaths has spiked to more than 900 from almost 300.
Counties were given the ability to opt out of the order under legislation passed earlier this year, although the governor has asked lawmakers to rethink that provision of the law.
Meanwhile, the pandemic has been taking hold in rural areas of the state.
An analysis by the Daily Yonder — published by the nonprofit Center for Rural Strategies — shows that as of Oct. 4-10, 68 of 86 rural Kansas counties are now in the red zone, meaning they have an infection rate of 100 or more new cases per 100,000 population.
As of the week of Sept. 20-26, the analysis showed that 50 of Kansas’ 86 rural counties were in the red zone.
The governor announced a new effort to work with Republican leadership — a relationship that has been tumultuous for months — after an outbreak was reported at a Norton nursing home that infected all 62 residents and claimed 10 lives.
She has openly accused Republican leaders in the Legislature of politicizing the pandemic, and they have countered with the same allegation.
The governor’s latest effort to impose a statewide mask mandate comes less than two weeks before the general election when Democrats have been campaigning on the issue statewide.
The Kansas Democrat Party has posted a number of comments on social media mocking Republicans, including U.S. Senate candidate Roger Marshall, for not wearing masks in public.