Lenexa opts against new mask mandate for now, citing worries over enforcement

Johnson County mask order

Lenexa city leaders on Tuesday debated whether to adopt a mask mandate. While some councilmembers urged the importance of masks in the wake of a surge of COVID-19 cases and overburdened hospitals, the Lenexa City Council ultimately decided against creating mask orders. Above, a woman shops in a mask in a local grocery store. File image.

In the wake of the recent Omicron-fueled surge in COVID-19 cases, the city of Lenexa has opted not to institute a new mask mandate, at least for now.

The Lenexa City Council and city staff on Tuesday had an informal discussion not originally on the meeting’s agenda over whether to have a mask mandate in place after four other northern Johnson County cities passed their own last week.

Those orders in Fairway, Mission, Prairie Village and Roeland Park all went into effect Tuesday and will remain in place for at least the next month in those cities.

Some Lenexa leaders expressed interest in putting mask orders in place — and, particularly, the value of having measures that cohere across the greater community — as well as measures that could protect vulnerable populations and those who remain ineligible for the shot.

However, the city council ultimately stopped short of enacting any measure over concerns that such an order would oblige the Lenexa Police Department to enforce mask rules, particularly when the department is already understaffed.

Police enforcement remains top issue

Some councilmembers said they still believe it’s the role of Johnson County to create a mask mandate, while others favored the city of Lenexa taking a more relaxed stance that encourages residents to take individual responsibility and have personal choice on whether to mask up.

City leaders also wanted to avoid making a mask order that further burdens businesses and the city police department with enforcement issues and complaints.

Others commented on the lengthy lists of exemptions in other cities’ mask orders that cancel out the effectiveness of a mandate.

“First of all, I think it’s the county’s responsibility, so I think that’s where the decision resides because they also have the enforcements, they have the health department, which we don’t have, so it makes sense to be there,” said Councilmember Joe Karlin, noting that a long list of exemptions within the other cities’ mask mandates essentially cancel out the effectiveness of a mandate.

However, some councilmembers pushed back, saying some people are not taking the surge in cases seriously, and that the city should step up and do its part.

“I understand the position around the enforcement problem,” said Councilmember Courtney Eiterich. “I guess I’m just wondering if there’s something that we can do administratively for a short period of time to say, ‘This is important to us; we want to keep you healthy and safe, and we understand that you want to keep your kids in school and that you want to go to work, and we want to keep the hospitals from being overburdened, and we want to do our part in that.’

“I want to make sure that we are exploring all the options that we have to maybe compensate for what I don’t see being done on the county level.”

City Manager Beccy Yocham, who broached the subject at the meeting after hearing feedback from city leaders interested in understanding more about neighboring cities’ mandates, shared her concerns around establishing an ordinance mandating masks in Lenexa.

“I have concern for this type of ordinance, especially as it relates to enforcement,” Yocham said. “I think that this puts our police officers in a very difficult position on what is a very politically sensitive issue. With the broad range of exemptions that require a fair amount of interpretation, I think that’s a difficult position for our police officers to be in, so I definitely have concerns around our ability to effectively enforce that and to place our police in the position of having to do that.”

Police Chief Dawn Layman echoed some of Yocham’s concerns, saying that a mask order could put police officers in a position where they have to use force over whether someone refuses to mask up.

The city council expressed a general openness to revisit the topic of mask orders in the future.