Johnson County Commission reaffirms decision to uphold face mask mandate on 4-3 vote

With Johnson County’s latest pandemic order in effect as of Monday, some community centers in the northern half of the county have enacted more health and safety measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Others with fairly restrictive measures already in place are staying the course. Above, a reminder from the Shawnee Civic Centre on the face mask requirement. File photo.

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In a replay of the arguments of last week, the Johnson County Commission once again upheld Gov. Laura Kelly’s face mask requirement.

Commissioners voted 4-3 not to rescind their support of the order, which requires masks to be worn in indoor public spaces or in situations when social distancing cannot take place.

Supporting the mask order were Commissioners Becky Fast, Jim Allen, Janeé Hanzlick and Chairman Ed Eilert. Those in favor of rescinding were Commissioners Steve Klika, Mike Brown and Michael Ashcraft.

Ashcraft, who abstained from the vote last week, said he is still conflicted about it. “I want them to wear masks and expect them to wear masks but I’m not comfortable with demanding it,” he said. He added his mind could be changed given more deliberation exploring every point of view.

Last week there was a sizable crowd lined up to speak about the order but only four people showed up Thursday. Two religious leaders thanked the commission for supporting the mask order.

“The key element of loving your neighbor is being willing to take on a little bit of inconvenience for the sake of protecting each other. I wouldn’t think that’s so controversial,” said Rabbi Moti Rieber, executive director of Kansas Interfaith Action.

Two women objected to it, saying it infringed on personal liberties. Mary Cauthon of Olathe, said, “I don’t believe this is an epidemic at all,” she said, adding that “whoever is trying to do this, there will be war.” Cauthon said people can wear masks if they want, but objected to the “control issue” of being required to.

Brown has been an outspoken critic of mask requirements and business shutdowns, and he reiterated some of those arguments Thursday. He, Klika and Ashcraft referred to “edicts” and “fiats” from the governor’s office as being too restrictive. Klika and Brown also offered anecdotes of constituents who have said they are unable to wear masks because of anxiety or hearing issues.

Brown referenced a woman who said she was emotionally unable to wear a mask because it reminded her of her rape, and Klika told of a person who needed to see lips move to participate in speech therapy.

Brown also noted that there is an enforcement aspect to the order. According to the state attorney general’s office, there can be civil enforcement in the form of a fine or injunction, but discretion is left up to individual district attorneys.

“That was very different than how this was explained,” last week, Brown said. “It was explained ad nauseum by several people I share this dais with including the chairman who said this is about educate, educate, educate but in fact there is a civil penalty hanging in the background.”

All commissioners wore masks at the Thursday meeting, including Brown, who also sported a red bandanna, cowboy hat and dark eyewear. Several commissioners said they have received thousands of emails about masks since the last vote. Allen and Fast noted the many doctors they’ve heard from are uniformly in favor of the mandate.

“I’m not saying masks don’t work, I’m saying people shouldn’t be required to wear them. That’s it,” Brown said.

Eilert disagreed. “I think taking a step backward is absolutely the wrong thing to do,” he said.