Gov. Laura Kelly seeks bipartisan House, Senate talks on new mask mandate

Gov. Laura Kelly proposed Wednesday talks with Kansas legislative leaders to search for a bipartisan agreement on a statewide mask requirement to shield people against COVID-19. Eighty counties have opted out of Kelly's mask mandate issued in July. Photo credit Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector.

By: Tim Carpenter

TOPEKA — Rapid escalation of COVID-19 infection and fatalities in Kansas prompted Gov. Laura Kelly on Wednesday to propose bipartisan discussions with House and Senate leaders about creating a statewide mask requirement.

Kelly said she was motivated by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s report that 74,400 Kansans have tested positive for coronavirus, more than 3,500 have been hospitalized and at least 952 infected people have died since March.

In July, the Democratic governor issued a statewide mask order that was blocked in at least 80 counties across Kansas. Twenty-five counties adopted some form of a mask advisory in a bid to deter spread of COVID-19.

Individuals who want to express their view of the pandemic have done so by deciding to wear or not wear a mask. In the Capitol, generally, Democrats have strapped on a mask while walking in the halls or sitting at legislative meetings. Republican legislators have exhibited less interest in wearing a mask.

“I plan to hold a discussion with House and Senate leadership to work towards a bipartisan mask requirement,” Kelly said during a news conference. “I know there are political challenges for legislative leadership, that there are some Kansans who won’t be happy that I’m trying to do this again.”

Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, said she remained convinced one-size-fits-all policies in response to the pandemic didn’t work in Kansas.

“Local leaders have done a great job of dictating local responses after public hearings and discussions with their constituents,” Wagle said.

Until the 2021 Legislature convenes in January, state government’s recommendations about mask mandates would be reviewed by the State Finance Council. Kelly, Wagle and Denning sit on the council along with House Republicans and Senate and House Democrats.

“Wearing a mask should not be political,” Kelly said. “It’s about public health and keeping our economy and our schools open.”

She said the discussions with legislative leadership should occur prior to the Nov. 3 election because Kansas politicians shouldn’t remain idle as infections soar.

“I’d be abdicating my duty as governor if I were to fail to confront this problem just because we’re close to an election,” Kelly said.

Meanwhile, the governor said $35 million in federal CARES Act funding had been set aside to assist Kansans who fell behind on rent for housing. Under the program, landlords and tenants would be able to apply together online for up to nine months or a maximum of $5,000 in rental assistance due to hardship caused by the pandemic.

The Kansas Eviction Prevention Program was developed to reduce the number of people made homeless due to economic problems tied to the coronavirus. It will be administered by the Kansas Housing Resources Corp.

As more Kansans are doing online learning and teleworking, being able to stay in your home has never been more important,” said Ryan Vincent, executive director of the state housing corporation.