GOP leaders promise to thwart Kansas governor on mask policy

GOP leaders promise to thwart Kansas governor on mask
policy 1

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) – Top Republican lawmakers in Kansas are promising to thwart Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s plan to encourage county officials to maintain mask mandates to help control COVID-19, declaring a statewide policy unnecessary after steep declines in new cases this winter.

GOP leaders in the Republican-controlled Legislature announced their next potential move after Kelly signed a measure rewriting laws on managing the coronavirus pandemic and future emergencies. The measure took effect Thursday and gives eight legislative leaders, six of them currently Republicans, the power to rescind a governor’s orders during an emergency. It also extends the current state of emergency until May 28 – something Kelly saw as crucial – instead of letting it expire Wednesday.

Kelly announced in signing the emergency management bill that on April 1, she will reissue a dozen orders imposed last year. They include one requiring people to wear masks or other face coverings in indoor businesses and public spaces, and outdoors if they can’t stay at least 6 feet apart. That order allowed counties to adopt their own policies but required elected county commissions to vote on opting out of her order.

The measure Kelly signed Wednesday continues a policy enacted last year of giving the state’s 105 counties final say over mask mandates and restrictions on businesses and public gatherings, meaning Kelly’s order merely would create an extra step for counties that don’t want to mandate masks. But Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, said Thursday that he will work to revoke “a statewide mandate that strips people of their individual freedoms and liberties.”

“It’s unnecessary to do statewide, ” Masterson said in an interview. “That’s why we put in local control.”

Masterson issued a statement Wednesday that promised “immediate action” by top GOP senators against any Kelly order creating an “undue burden.” The House’s top three Republicans issued a statement opposing “another unnecessary mask mandate.”

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Kansas has seen a dramatic drop in new confirmed and probable COVID-19 cases since mid-November, when the rolling seven-day average for new cases peaked at 2,767 a day. The average declined to 239 cases a day for the seven days ending March 17, its lowest level since late June 2020.

But it inched up this week, averaging 289 cases a day for the seven days ending Wednesday. The total number for the pandemic has surpassed 300,000, or more than one for every 10 of the state’s 2.9 million residents.

Other states, including Illinois and Michigan, have seen a marked increase in cases in recent weeks. And a third wave of infections has forced some European nations back into lockdowns and other restrictions.

National health officials say not enough people are vaccinated against COVID-19 for everyone to stop wearing masks and drop other precautions. In Kansas, the state Department of Health and Environment reported Wednesday that 24% of residents, or about 706,000, had received at least one vaccine dose.

“Gov. Kelly has consistently followed the science, which has proved that masks protect Kansans and keep businesses open, schools in-person, and our state on the right track,” Kelly spokeswoman Reeves Oyster said Thursday in an emailed statement.

Republican lawmakers have repeatedly criticized Kelly’s handling of the pandemic and called her administration’s distribution of COVID-19 vaccines too slow. Some GOP lawmakers distrust the state health department.

The Senate health committee on Thursday approved a bill that would strip the department’s head of the power to expand the state’s list of vaccines required to enroll children in schools and day cares, giving it to legislators instead. That could include vaccines for the coronavirus and other diseases.

The measure goes next to the Senate for debate.

In 2019, the state health department’s top administrator, Dr. Lee Norman, mandated two additional vaccines for enrolling in schools, riling up vocal vaccine opponents holding views at odds with mainstream science. Norman required a two-dose hepatitis vaccine for kindergartners and a meningitis vaccine for seventh graders.

Committee Chair Richard Hilderbrand, a Galena Republican, said elected legislators should make the final decision instead of an appointed official “with no accountability.” He also said “a history of dishonesty and poor judgment” also justifies the change.

But Democratic Sen. Cindy Holscher, of Overland Park, said Norman has faced “just a lot of vitriol,” and added that people want public health experts to make such decisions.

“That doesn’t seem to always resonate here in the Capitol,” she said.


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