(This article is a snapshot of some of the discussion Dickinson County’s mask order and COVID protocols are generating during county commission meetings. For those wanting the entire story, county meetings can be viewed by visiting the Commissioners page on the Dickinson County webpage at dkcoks.org and clicking on the link)
A roomful of socially-distanced Dickinson County residents talked to county commissioners Thursday about a variety of COVID-related topics, including removing fines from the emergency health order that required mask wearing, eliminating the mask order, terminating the county health officer, the effects of quarantines on school age children, the impact on mental health and other concerns.
As has already been reported, the commission voted 2 to 1 Thursday to remove the enforcement and prosecution sections of the mask order — a change which, for all practical purposes, makes the wearing of masks a discretionary decision.
Rural resident Angie Evans said she had examined Kansas statutes regarding the membership of the county’s board of health and she believes the board can only be comprised of the three county commissioners. Thus, Dickinson County Health Officer Dr. Brian Holmes and county Health Department Director John Hultgren are not members and cannot vote on orders.
Based on that, Evans asked commissioners if that nullifies the board of health votes that created the mask order and said it might be a question for legal counsel.
Doug Thompson, county counselor, said he would review the statute and come up with an opinion.
Commission Chairman Lynn Peterson said that even if Holmes and Hultgren are not members, the mask orders passed by a vote of 5-0 so even if the vote is only 3-0 it passed unanimously.
Enterprise resident Sheldon Jones, a local insurance agent, told commissioners they need to decide what image they want to project during this pandemic and said the actions of the county health officer is hurting the commission’s reputation.
Jones related he serves on a board at Memorial Health System and said the county health officer is hurting Memorial.
“I am asking you to get a rein on that person and stop those behaviors. That is one thing dividing this community. I’m asking for that to stop and stop soon,” Jones said, to audience applause.
Explaining that his job is risk management, Jones said he examines risk and tries to mitigate it and the mask ordinance needs to end. He said there are groups that can help educate others on proper hygiene and ways to protect themselves.
Jones said the mask order is “handcuffing” businesses and other entities and told them the orders are causing problems for the schools.
“The school districts’ insurance contract requires them to abide by your rules, your laws, your ordinances,” he said.
Abilene resident Greg Wilson told commissioners that in the past week 500 new local members had joined the Constitutional/First Amendment group on Facebook, bring the total to 941.
“We’re not going to go away. We will continue to show up to the meetings and try to get some flexibility,” Wilson said.
He told commissioners they were not getting the facts from the health officer and that he (Dr. Holmes) needs “to go.”
Rural resident Paige Westfall talked about how the ongoing quarantines in the schools is adversely affecting students. She explained that her son, a sophomore, has been quarantined 57 days since the start of the school year and his grades have suffered.
“The school board can’t do anything about it (the ongoing quarantines) unless you guys change your mandates,” Westfall said.
She also implored the commission to terminate the health officer.
“He is the main part of the problem. He’s consistently stirring it up, he is consistently probing people,” she said. “I’m asking you to get rid of him for the sake of the county. I think that would stop the division. I think he is part of the problem.”
Rural resident Kevin Harris asked the commission to examine the situation with a “common sense attitude,” explaining he was referring to the school quarantines.
“I’ve talked to school board members who said their hands are tied,” Harris said. “We’ve got to make some flexibilities in our protocol in schools and yet we can’t because the county health officer will not let us flex those.”
Harris said the schools are doing everything they can — masking up the students, not allowing them to intermingle, making them eat lunch in their classrooms, sitting them six feet apart — and yet if a student gets sick the whole class is sent home.
Rural resident Laurie Megan Armstrong said she believes commissioners want to do what is best for the community but “it’s ludicrous” for the health department to set a goal of a five percent positivity rate before removing the mask mandate.
She noted that four months after implementing the mask mandate, county COVID-19 numbers are not lowering.
“We want to slow the spread, but masks aren’t doing that,” she said, explaining it’s up to the people to decide whether or not to wear a mask.
“I don’t have time for a decade of my children to be masked up behind Plexiglas,” Armstrong said, breaking into tears. “I don’t have a decade. I don’t have a year. We’ve already taken 9 months. My life since March has been completely turned upside down.”
She said she can not go to work because she needs to be home to take care of her children.
“How much more do we have to give before you decide a majority of our population is safe from this? With or without a mask?” Armstrong added.
Citing the 14 deaths in Dickinson County due to COVID, Armstrong said 14 people is only .3 percent of the elderly population over the age of 65, which does not warrant having the remaining population masked up, kept six feet apart and unable to attend church without “someone walking in and fining your pastor.”
The Rev. Gordon McClure, lead pastor at Emmanuel Church, told commissioners he would like the health order to be altered to allow churches to have a 50 percent maximum capacity. (Earlier during the board of health meeting, the BOH increased capacity of all gatherings from 30 people to 25 percent of the maximum fire rated occupancy).
McClure said churches are important, particularly during this extremely stressful pandemic. He talked about the detrimental mental effect the situation is having on people and how it is causing increased alcohol and drug use, isolation, economic devastation, marital and family issues and said it will generate a “wave of suicides.”
He noted the connection between mental health and faith and said research shows people who attend church receive more emotional and social support, have a more positive outlook and motivation.