CRAWFORD COUNTY, Kan. — After a lengthy discussion Friday of what enforcement will look like that ultimately left some questions unanswered, the Crawford County Commission unanimously approved adopting Gov. Laura Kelly’s new order requiring people to wear facemasks in public, which is nearly identical to a previous order from July.
In opening the discussion, County Public Health Officer Dr. Tim Stebbins noted that both locally and across the broader region, hospitals and medical facilities are at or near their capacities for coronavirus patients.
“Kansas City, Wichita, Springfield, Tulsa, all in the same boat, Topeka as well, and so we’re seeing, you know, 2,000-plus new cases in Kansas daily, so this is not going to get better,” he said. “Even if we stopped moving today and 100 percent mitigated the spread, we’d have three to four weeks of dealing with what we already have.”
Kelly’s new Executive Order 20-68 will have a greater impact on counties that previously opted out of her July order, 20-52, which Crawford County did not do. Counties that previously opted out have until next Wednesday to either adopt Kelly’s new order or issue their own order to again opt out.
But even though Crawford County never opted out of the original mask order, it needs to “fully enact and embrace” its own Local Health Officer Order No. 3 that was approved in early September, Stebbins said, and step up enforcement of it.
County Counselor Jim Emerson noted that there are a few changes from the July order in Kelly’s new order issued this week. One change is that the list of people exempt from maintaining six-foot distance while seated at restaurants and bars now includes only those who live together, rather than those who come to the restaurant as a group and are seated together.
"So the older order said ‘individuals who reside together or are seated together,’” Emerson said. “So if you’re a group that comes in, a family group — older order: you’re OK, you can sit together. This [new order] specifically says ‘you reside together.’ So there is a little bit of a change in the newer order.”
County officials also discussed enforcement, both of isolation and quarantine orders, violations of which can involve criminal penalties, and public health orders requiring masks and other COVID-19 precautions at businesses, violations of which are civil matters.
“There’s just certain areas that I can get involved in and there’s certain areas I can’t get involved in,” said Sheriff Danny Smith, “so it just has to be within the letter of the law.”
When it comes to enforcing isolation and quarantine orders for individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 or been exposed to positive cases, the county has “a clear method to enforce isolation and quarantine orders and we want the public to make sure that they’re aware of that,” Emerson said. “If you’re on isolation or quarantine order please stay home, if not there are criminal penalties that could be assessed for violation, and as we’re having more and more cases and more and more people under isolation and quarantine, we ask our law enforcement partners and cities to help us out.”
As for enforcing the public health orders that are more relevant to businesses in that they require their staff and customers to wear masks and follow other coronavirus mitigation rules, county attorneys have enforcement mechanisms that include first warning businesses before issuing fines and court injunctions against them, Emerson said — although such actions are outside the scope of what county attorneys would generally be involved in if it were not for the unprecedented circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It is not what they do,” Emerson said, “so I can’t say that Monday we’ll be out issuing enforcement orders. There will still have to be some behind-the-scenes work to get us there.”
Dr. Stebbins noted Kelly’s order states that county attorneys "should use their discretion and consider the totality of circumstances as they determine appropriate enforcement actions.”
Before making the motion to adopt Gov. Kelly’s new order, County Commission Chairman Bruce Blair extensively questioned the county’s legal and a health officials about what would be changing in terms of enforcement. Emerson and other officials said they would be using existing mechanisms available to them to further crack down on violators of the orders that have already been in place, but further discussions between area law enforcement agencies and other officials would be necessary to determine what specific actions need to be taken.
“I just want to be clear with what this looks like,” Blair said, “because really that’s what it comes down to is — me as a business owner that’s been trying to do the mask mandate as set forth, how does my day change Wednesday or tomorrow as a result? Because that’s the question I’m going to have from them, and that’s the answer I need to know for them, because that’s what they’re thinking about.”
Deputy Public Health Officer Dr. Linda Bean said that for many businesses, little would change.
“If they and their staff have been wearing masks as we’ve talked about from the beginning of this, nothing changes for them,” she said, “and many businesses, nothing is going to change because they’ve been doing the right thing all along.”