Johnson County ends mask order but strongly encourages residents to still follow COVID-19 guidelines

Johnson County mask order

Starting Saturday, May 1, Johnson County will no longer mandate masks be worn in public, but will encourage employers and organizations to still follow federal COVID-19 guidelines. Businesses and institutions will still have the ability to make their own rules for mask-wearing and social distancing. File photo.

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Johnson County’s health order requiring masks and social distancing in businesses has become a “strong recommendation,” which carries no enforcement but still encourages employers and organizations to follow federal COVID-19 guidelines.

On Thursday, the Johnson County Commission voted 5-1 on a resolution that points residents and employers toward the Centers for Disease Control for best practices on mask wearing and social distancing.

Assistant County Manager Joe Connor said the resolution puts the commission on record as backing public health experts while leaving flexibility for changes in federal guidelines that may come as more Americans become vaccinated and cases drop.

The resolution makes clear that it is not an order of the public health department. But it also encourages continuation of health measures like masks and physical distancing that have been used to date.

The county commission’s legal counsel, Cindy Dunham, clarified that the recommendations don’t have the legal weight of an enforceable order.

But it was still too strong for some on the commission.

Wording in the resolution that recommends businesses “strongly encourage or require” health precautions drew objections from two commissioners and some speakers during the public comment period.

Objections raised

Commissioner Charlotte O’Hara suggested the county would continue to be “held hostage” to public health rules until at least 70% of Johnson County residents are vaccinated, a figure often used to suggest herd immunity has been reached.

Employers might use the resolution as an excuse to make their own mandates, she said.

O’Hara herself has said she will not get the vaccine on moral and religious grounds, and has objected to wearing a mask due to a hearing impairment, which was the basis for now-dismissed lawsuit O’Hara filed against the Blue Valley School District.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Michael Ashcraft said the new resolution will be too confusing for people to follow.

“I have read the resolution closely and I think confusion, misunderstanding and misinterpretation will evolve from that because it is a change in direction and velocity. It is a desire to encourage people versus ordering people,” he said.

But the county will likely be addressing holes and contradictions in days to come, he said.

“That’s why I would have preferred just to eliminate it and go forward and return to pre-COVID days,” he added.

Public comments

All but one of the ten people who spoke during public comments wanted the county to completely drop any mandate, citing concerns about personal liberty, government control and debunked claims about masks’ efficacy.

One speaker, Charles Maddock of De Soto, said the country is reaching a point where enough people have been vaccinated that they should be freed from worrying about the safety of those who aren’t.

The county currently says roughly 50% of eligible residents should be vaccinated by the end of this week. That’s one of the highest rates of vaccination in the Kansas City metro but still well short of what many health experts say is needed to achieve herd immunity.

One speaker Thursday, Cassie Woolworth, urged residents not to abandon health measures that have brought cases down.

O’Hara also questioned County Manager Penny Postoak Ferguson on what future county policies would be going forward.

The 4,000 county employees will likely still be required to mask while indoors or in close proximity outside, Postoak Ferguson said, though those plans are not final yet.

The county does not ask its employees about their COVID-19 vaccination status, she added.

Concerns over potential conflicts over masks

Commissioner Shirley Allenbrand said county employees’ wishes also should be considered.

“There’s a lot of them here who are very upset by being strongly encountered by people with no masks. So what about their rights as well?” she said.

Commissioner Janeé Hanzlick said she would have preferred extending the order another month but is comfortable with dropping the requirement given the county’s progress on vaccinations.

“Even if you don’t feel masks are helpful or work, please be respectful of those who do. Please be respectful of those who have children who have compromised health situations,” she said. “This is your opportunity to show that in Johnson County we care about each other and that we’re willing to pull together to get through this.”

Ashcraft asked for a vote to table the item but it failed.

Those who voted for the resolution on the final vote were Commissioners Hanzlick, Ashcraft, Allenbrand, Becky Fast and Chairman Ed Eilert. O’Hara voted no and Commissioner Jeff Meyers was absent.

The resolution goes into effect at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, May 1.