Wyandotte County is once again requiring masks to be worn indoors when visiting public places under a new health order issued in response to the latest surge of COVID-19.
The Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas, on Thursday night approved mandatory mask-wearing for most residents over the age of 5. The rules, sought by Wyandotte County health officials, apply to everyone regardless of vaccination status.
Commissioners passed the order by a vote of 8-2. It took effect immediately with an expiration date of Sept. 9.
The original order was to cover all of Wyandotte County. But after debate Thursday night, commissioners amended the order to exclude Bonner Springs, Edwardsville and other school districts.
Under the order, masks are required in most cases whenever a person is occupying an indoor public space. Examples outlined in the order include those obtaining health care services or using some form of public transportation or ride-sharing service.
Businesses or organizations within the county must require employees, customers and visitors to wear masks whenever members of the public are present. The order also specifies that employees preparing or packaging food must be masked at all times.
Masks may be removed when someone is eating or drinking, performing in an organized competitive athletic event or swimming. Those engaged in a court proceeding also are not required to wear one under the county’s health order, though the court may impose stricter rules.
Exemptions are given to children under the age of 5. Children 2 years and older are recommended to wear them anyway, but health officials advise masks may be dangerous for children below that age group.
People with a medical condition or a disability that could be affected by a mask are also not required to wear one.
Last week, area public health officials urged commissioners to swiftly pass a new mandate as COVID-19’s highly contagious delta variant is sweeping Kansas City and the nation.
Dr. Steve Stites, chief medical officer at The University of Kansas Health System, spoke before the commission and brought up the rise in hospitalizations from COVID-19 and how a new mask mandate — along with vaccinations — can help them decrease.
“I want to walk you through in what is scaring us and ask for your support in helping us adopt public health measures throughout our community that have already bent the curve and we know can, again, bend the curve,” Stites said.
“We know how to bend the curve again, we need to get everybody vaccinated,” Stites added.
Health officials continue to urge residents to get one of the widely available COVID-19 vaccines, saying that is the best way people can protect themselves from getting sick or spreading the illness. But Wyandotte County leaders have concluded that a mask order is a necessary public safety measure considering the area’s low vaccination rates.
Roughly 36% of Wyandotte County’s population had been fully vaccinated as of Thursday, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. Less than half — around 43% — have received a single dose of a two-stage vaccine. And the county and region remain an area considered by the federal government as one where the risk of transmission is considered high.
Across the metropolitan area, Kansas City area added 957 new cases in a single day on Thursday. On Wednesday, the area recorded at least 1,000 new cases for the first time since January. In Wyandotte County alone, 95 new cases were added on Thursday.
Nearly all of the new infections are among those who have not been fully vaccinated.
Wyandotte County is the latest metro area to recommit to masks in a patchwork of local authorities straddling a state line with different laws and guidelines. Updated guidance offered by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, paired with a deepening trend of cases, prompted local leaders on both sides of the state line to reconsider health orders.
Kansas City, Missouri was the first to announce one, issuing an order that took effect Monday. Jackson County, Independence, Johnson County, each have created new orders since then with varying degrees of restriction. On Thursday, the Platte County Board of Trustees unanimously rejected a proposal to reinstate a mask mandate.
Passage of Wyandotte County’s mask mandate followed a different route this time because of a new Kansas law that strips the ability of local health officials to unilaterally issue such orders. That law is in limbo following a legal challenge on state constitutional grounds, but legal advisers for Wyandotte County suggested following it anyway by having commissioners vote.