TOPEKA, Kan. — Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly issued an order Thursday directing Kansas residents to wear masks in public places and their workplaces, likely provoking a backlash from the Republican-controlled Legislature even though enforcement is expected to be lax.
Kelly issued the order after the state saw a surge in reported coronavirus cases following her decision to lift statewide restrictions on businesses and public gatherings May 26. She left the rules to the state’s 105 counties after weeks of complaints from Republican lawmakers that she was moving too slowly to reopen the economy. The new mask requirement will take effect at 12:01 a.m. Friday.
The governor’s order says Kansas residents must wear masks in indoor public spaces, while seeking health care or using public transportation. It also says people must wear them outdoors in public when they can’t remain at least 6 feet (1.8 meters) from others. Businesses must require their employees to wear masks in places frequented by the public, even if members of the public are not present, or if they prepare food.
The requirement would not apply to children under 6, the deaf, or people with medical conditions that make breathing through a mask difficult or that would prevent them from removing a mask without assistance. The rule also doesn’t apply to the Legislature’s meetings or to court proceedings.
“All of us want to return to our normal lives and routines,” Kelly said in a statement. “Unfortunately, we have seen a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths across our state and our country. We must act.”
Kansas has reported nearly 15,000 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus since the pandemic started in early March and had reported 272 COVID-19-related deaths as of Wednesday. Since Kelly lifted statewide restrictions on businesses and public gatherings immediately after Memorial Day, Kansas has had 5,653 new confirmed COVID-19 cases, which amounted to a 61% increase, and 84 deaths — a 45% jump.
Republicans already have been critical of Kelly’s plans to issue the order, arguing that it will sow confusion. A new pandemic law that took effect in June, resulting from a compromise between her and lawmakers, allows counties to opt out of the governor’s health orders, and even if they don’t, local officials in many places are not expected to vigorously enforce a mask requirement.
Kelly planned to meet with legislative leaders Thursday afternoon to review the order. They don’t have the power to block it.
Wyandotte County in the Kansas City area and Douglas County in northeastern Kansas, which is home to the main University of Kansas campus, already require masks. Wyandotte County had nearly 2,400 reported coronavirus cases as of Wednesday, the most of any county in the state.
The health officer in Douglas County also ordered bars there closed for two weeks, starting Friday, after reported COVID-19 cases more than doubled in the last two weeks, from 85 to 188 as of Wednesday.
Kelly’s health secretary, Dr. Lee Norman, predicted Wednesday that the state will face steeper increases in coronavirus cases and suggested that it blew its chance for a summer respite from the pandemic by reopening its economy too quickly. He also said Kansas is not “anywhere close” to the end of the first wave of the pandemic.