Dickinson County Commissioners took the teeth out of the county’s mandatory mask order Thursday by removing the prosecution and enforcement clauses.
In a 2 to 1 vote, the commission approved striking Sections 8 and 9 from the Emergency Public Health Order issued on Nov. 17 that mandated the use of masks in Dickinson County.
By removing the two sections it means there is no way to enforce the order through fines or prosecution.
Commissioners Ron Roller and Lynn Peterson voted in favor, while Commissioner Craig Chamberlin cast the dissenting vote.
A large number of county residents were in attendance during the meeting who greeted the vote with applause.
Like last week, the courthouse basement meeting room was filled with residents who gathered to listen and speak against the mask mandate. The action occurred after commissioners spent about 80 minutes listening to public comments. (That discussion will be included in a separate story in Monday’s edition).
Even though the health order has been in effect since November it came to the forefront two weeks ago after County Attorney Andrea Purvis said it had come to her attention that people were not following the mask order and she intended to prosecute violators.
That news spurred many county residents to action leading to protests outside the courthouse and dozens of public comments during the Dec. 10 commission meeting.
Referring to the county’s attorney’s statement, Commissioner Peterson told those gathered this week that Purvis’ only purpose was to inform people and give warnings.
“There has been pushback,” Peterson said.
He asked County Counselor Doug Thompson what would happen if the fines were removed from the health order.
Thompson replied that mask wearing would become “discretionary.”
“If you didn’t want to wear the mask you could because there wouldn’t be any enforceability if you took out section 8 which is the prosecution and section 9 that pertains to the law enforcement who would be issuing the tickets,” he said.
“So without those, no tickets are going to be issued, no court appearances,” Thompson explained, adding that he didn’t want to share his own opinion, but as the City of Abilene’s municipal judge he did not want to deal with those cases.
“When this came out I said ‘I do not want these tickets coming before me.’ So if they’re going somewhere they’re going to the district level.”
That statement was greeted with applause.
Thompson also noted that as far as he was aware no complaints were going through the court system.
Audience member Gina Dalton told commissioners if there’s no fine there’s no point to having a mask order, but Peterson said it asks for “voluntary compliance” by emphasizing mask wearing is “a good practice” to offset the spread of COVID-19.
Peterson asked if commissioners were interested in making removal of the fines an action item to which Roller reply he would and the motion was made to remove Sections 8 and 9. Peterson seconded the motion.
After the motion passed 2 to 1, Peterson said he respected Commissioner Chamberlin’s no vote and explained the commission typically votes unanimously.
Peterson said he knows he and Roller will hear from county residents who will ask, “why did you lower the standard?”
“We’re trying to hold things together and do things responsibly,” he explained.
The action taken by commissioners removed the enforcement portion of the emergency order, which — for all practical purposes — makes mask wearing discretionary.
Commissioner Roller asked Thompson about the ramifications of completely dropping the mask mandate.
Thompson said he would need to examine Gov. Laura Kelly’s mask order and make sure the county would not face any legal issues. Barring that, he did not feel there would be ramifications.
There was no further discussion about dropping the mask order during the regular meeting, but the topic had surfaced earlier in the morning during the Dickinson County Board of Health (BOH) meeting.
Commissioners, along with County Health Officer Dr. Brian Holmes and Health Department Director John Hultgren, comprise the board of health, although an audience member challenged the board’s membership during the regular meeting (see story in an upcoming issue).
During the BOH meeting, members approved three amendments to the county health order.
The first amendment removed language that required a person to wear a mask when alone in an office or area away from others.
The second amendment adjusted the maximum number of people in a mass gathering by removing the limit of 30 people and changing it to “25 percent of the maximum fire rated occupancy” as long as social distancing can still occur. Smaller groups would be regulated by the six-foot rule.
The third amendment extended the executive order through the end of January 2021.
Before approving the changes, Commissioner Roller asked Dr. Holmes and Hultgren if mask wearing is effective.
Hultgren said masks help stop the spread, but will not stop the virus. However, the vaccine, which is now becoming available, will — along with “herd immunity.”
“But up to this point, it (masks) was all we had,” Hultgren added.
Roller said the commission has been “getting a lot of flack” with the mask situation and he had gone along with it because he was trying to do what was best for the health of the community.
“We’ve been fed all kinds of facts. I’ve read all things — one side to the other — and you can’t put that puzzle together,” Roller said. “It’s darn frustrating for the folks in our areas. When people call us they’re fit to be tied. I want you to know I’m very unhappy with the situation that’s going on right now.”
Roller said his daughter who lives in another community had not left the house, had “walked the line,” but still contracted COVID.
“It’s everywhere,” Dr. Holmes replied. “We had cases here where people swear to God they haven’t gone anywhere.”
Hultgren said health experts are saying people should continue to wear masks for awhile even after most are vaccinated because they won’t get sick but it’s possible they might still be able to transmit the virus.
Roller took responsibility for prolonging the portion of the mask order that required people to still wear masks even when they were alone in an office or away from others.
During a special commission meeting called before Thanksgiving to modify that portion of the order, Roller failed to second the motion so it died. Commissioner Chamberlin could not be in attendance at the meeting because of an out-of-town appointment.
“I take full responsibility for that because I was asking medical field people what their best solution was and it was keeping masks on,” Roller said, explaining he did not second the motion because he felt it was important for all three commissioners to “put their heads together” and make the right decisions for the community.
“I take full responsibility and I do apologize,” he added.
Chamberlin said he wanted to make a comment, explaining the virus has caused serious problems that affect the medical field in many ways, particularly by creating problems for those with other medical conditions.
Chamberlin related a story of a Chapman resident who suffered a heart attack and was transported to Geary County Hospital where the patient spent six hours in the emergency room while they tried to find a hospital with room where he could be treated. Finally the patient ended up at Stormont-Vail in Topeka, but it took about 50 hours before it was decided what could be done.
“COVID has really impacted the medical field for what they can do for other people. Hopefully, you won’t have that problem,” Chamberlin told the crowd. “It’s serious. That’s all I have to say.”
Roller said that people who work in places where wearing a mask impairs their safety and well-being do not need to wear masks. Neither do people with asthma, breathing and other medical issues.
Roller also said he was opposed to the fine for wearing masks.
Peterson explained the commission could not address the fines when it was acting as the board of health because fines were set out in a different document, but could talk about it during the regular meeting.
“I’m dang opposed for having a fine on masks. We’ve got bigger problems than these masks. We could start with illegal drug use and go from there,” Roller said.
Contact Kathy Hageman at email@example.com