Merriam became the latest Johnson County city to consider imposing a citywide mask mandate in the face of rising cases of COVID-19 this summer.
Ultimately, however, the city council this week rejected the idea, in favor of focusing more on encouraging residents to get vaccinated.
On Monday, the Merriam City Council revisited the topic of a potential city mask order in a discussion prompted by Councilmember Whitney Yadrich, who brought forward the item while also making clear she didn’t necessarily think the city should impose its own mandate.
She noted that neighboring Prairie Village has also begun exploring the possibility of its own mask order. The city council there is expected to discuss a mask ordinance at its next meeting later this month.
“Mask mandates are unfortunately coming back into our lives because COVID cases, especially among the unvaccinated, are growing so rapidly that hospitals in our area are now strained,” Yadrich said.
Worries about enforcement
Aside from an order requiring masks in all elementary-level schools, Johnson County does not currently have a countywide mask mandate in place.
According to the county’s COVID-19 dashboard, as of Wednesday, the county had seen 2,134 new cases over the last 14 days and sits at a total of 2,556 COVID-19 hospitalizations.
Yadrich said a call with regional chief medical officers on Friday made the status of COVID-19 in the county sound “pretty grim”, with Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City reporting a steady increase of COVID-19 patients that was stretching the facility close to its capacity.
Despite that, no member of the council — including Yadrich — said the city should go forward with its own mandate.
Councilmember Christine Evans Hands said she would be in favor of the governing body voicing support for local entities that require masks on their own.
City administrator Chris Engel said in recent discussions among city staff about mask-wearing, points have been raised about what enforcement looks like on the front lines.
That includes thorny questions about how police would respond to alleged mask infractions under a mask order and how local businesses could choose to address masks — as well as which employees would be stuck enforcing a mandate.
“You’re asking [part-time employees] to debate someone about the constitutionality of whatever,” Engel said. “Is that part of their job description? And if it’s not, and we say that it’s the next level or two levels up, does that mean that our middle managers or department heads should just hang out in front counters all day and not go to meetings because they’re the appropriate ones to enforce it?”
‘The real solution is getting people vaccinated’
Still, councilmembers agreed on the importance of their role in informing the public about getting vaccinated.
Councilmember Bruce Kaldahl said the real problem at hand is unvaccinated residents, not masks, and the city’s discussion should be centered around that.
“If we want to spend some time and energy in any type of public campaign to educate people, let’s deal with vaccinations,” Kaldahl said. “The real solution is getting people vaccinated, and I don’t know if any of that has to do with city government. It’s more of a county and state issue.”
Ultimately, no motion was taken up during the discussion.
City officials ultimately reached a conclusion that the re-implementation of mask mandates is a matter that should be handled on a county level.
Yadrich said the discussion at Monday’s city council meeting, even if it didn’t lead to a new mask order, allowed businesses and residents to see where city decisions are coming from and that they’re in the public record.
“This is a transparent governing body,” Yadrich said. “There are other cities in the area exploring this and I’m getting a lot of questions about it. And I think it’s good to be clear on the record as a transparent city, and say ‘This isn’t going to work for us. Here’s why.’”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article has been amended to make it clearer that Councilmember Whitney Yadrich, while bringing forward the idea of a mask order for discussion, did not necessarily support the idea of the city instituting one without the county’s support.