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Kansas's Second Most Populous County Rejects Mask Mandate After Community Response, Commissioner Calls Them 'Toxic'

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Sedgwick County, Kansas, the seat of Kansas’s largest city – Wichita – and the second most populous county in the state, rejected a new mask mandate proposed by the county’s health officer, Gerald Minns, by a margin of 3-2, with County Commission Chair Peter Meitzner declaring them “toxic” and provoking reactions that border on “civil unrest.”

A special meeting was held in Sedgwick County, Kansas yesterday afternoon, as is now required since the legislature passed legislation stripping county-level health officers of making unilateral decisions, including for mask mandates. The three hour meeting featured a long series of doctors clamoring for a mask mandate, and several anti-mask citizens supporting face freedom. It ultimately culminated in a 3-2 decision to discard the request for a mask mandate.

“I don’t think anybody likes wearing masks, I think we all agree on that,” said Commissioner Jim Howell, who went on to describe that his previous careers in avaition and fire fighting required masks, which were unpleasant but necessary for his job.  He added, “Everybody who talks about masks knows, masks don’t stop COVID. They mitigate the transmission to some degree… In reality, each one of those masks has potentially some benefit, but those masks don’t actually stop COVID.” Howell then explained that despite social distancing and mask wearing, he contracted COVID.

“I did everything religiously, despite some community criticism that thinks I didn’t, I did all those things, and I still got COVID, even though I wore my mask. Then I got vaccinated, and now you’re asking me to put a mask back on. I have antibodies from infection, I have antibodies from vaccine… Now we’re saying to everybody it doesn’t matter if you’re vaccinated or not, we’re going to make you pretend that you’re not vaccinated and are at the same risk as everybody else.”

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He then said that it seems as though Minns wants a mask mandate because individuals cannot discern the difference between those who are vaccinated and those who are not. “We’re not going to be like countries back in the ’40s that make you wear an armband to identify yourself.” Howell then moved to receive and file the request for a mask mandate without passing it or rejecting it.

The two liberal members of the commission then made emotional appeals, with Commissioner Sarah Lopez specifically suggesting that, by not requiring all citizens to wear face masks, they are stripping the freedoms of children who are not able to receive the vaccines. “We talk about individual rights and freedoms. What about my son who is 8? What about his rights and freedoms? He can’t be vaccinated yet,” said Commissioner Sarah Lopez. “Yes, you’re right, 99.99% of kids live. That’s true. But what about those kids that don’t?”

Commissioner Lacey Cruse then claimed she was “shaken” by the “vitriol” in the debate, and urged her colleagues to pass the mask mandate so they could move on to addressing homelessness and gun violence, suggesting those issues could not be tackled without universal masking. Some had speculated that the recent opening of an Amazon fulfillment facility in Park City, Kansas, which falls in Cruse’s district, may have provoked the call for a new mask mandate.

Finally, County Commission Chairman Pete Meitzner spoke. “I was kinda baffled 48 hours ago, when all the sudden this thing tipped up, and all the sudden we started getting emails by the second… This thing just went out of control.” He added, “Boy, you bring masks into the conversation? And it is love, hate going on.” He added, “I think the mask order borders on close to civil unrest, and we have even seen it on TV in some cities, and I think Johnson County and Kansas City has experienced it. That mask thing is very, very toxic as an issue, and emotional.”

Ultimately, Commissioners Howell, Meitzner, and David Dennis voted to receive and file the suggestion for a mask mandate, provoking sharp, emotional dissent from Cruse and Lopez. Over 500,000 people live in Sedgwick County, Kansas, making it the second most populous county in Kansas behind Johnson County, the seat of Kansas City, Kansas.

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