Manhattan Tuesday joined Wichita and a selection of other communities in passing an ordinance requiring residents wear face coverings in public spaces.
City commissioners voted 3 to 2 to mandate wearing masks that cover the mouth and nose when in publicly accessible spaces indoors or outdoors where physical distancing of 6 feet is not possible. The ordinances comes amid a spike in COVID-19 cases in Riley County beginning in mid-June.
Health officials say the county had hovered around an average percent positive rate among tested individuals below the state average around 5 to 6 percent until recent weeks. The rate for the week of June 21 was over 18 percent and over 13 percent during the week of June 28 — that brings the county’s cumulative rate to over 9 percent, higher than the state average by almost a percentage point.
Mayor Usha Reddi a mask ordinance in May, but movement halted at the time due to lack of support within the commission and from community organizations including Kansas State University and the county’s Emergency Operations Center. Since, K-State has implemented its own mask requirements and come out in support of a city-wide ordinance. KSU Football in that time experienced a COVID-19 outbreak constituting 14 players, halting team activities.
They were joined in support by Fort Riley and the MHK Clinical Response Task Force constituted of local health professionals in addition to the EOC, Riley County Health Department and Flint Hills Wellness Coalition. The item also drew hundreds of emailed public comments advocating both for and against the ordinance.
“We’re not going to get 100 percent compliance, but we will have more than what we have now,” says Reddi. “The other piece to this is everybody is frustrated. Everybody’s going to be frustrated for a long while, but this is the one solution we have that where we can make a change.
“If we continue to do what we are doing now, the results will be the same.”
Commissioner Mark Hatesohl, though, pushed for the city to instead adopt a resolution recommending mask wearing. He says an ordinance including criminal punishment is divisive and could drive away folks who already find Manhattan scary. Hatesohl further stated the ordinance will inconvenience and irritate many without providing the ‘silver bullet’ desired to impact the pandemic, adding he thinks most would adhere to a recommendation.
“It all boils down to this personal responsibility of I know what risks I’m willing to take, I don’t need the government to tell me which risks I can’t take,” says Hatesohl. “I sometimes get squishy on budget negotiations, but I never get squishy when it comes to government overreach and taking away the ability for people to run their lives.”
Hatesohl also raised concerns about RCPD’s capacity to enforcement, something mentioned by Director Dennis Butler during his address to the commission. Mayor Pro Tem Wynn Butler agreed with Hatesohl, reiterating past support for a resolution or a shift to handling masks via code enforcement. He questioned whether masks will be effective and whether folks will wear them properly. Butler also had concerns about unity of command demonstrated by the differing decisions at the city and county levels locally.
“I would have preferred a resolution,” Butler says. “Another easier way would have been if the county would have just said [they would]uphold the governor’s executive order and that would have made it simple.
“It would have been a civil action and not one that involves the municipal court.”
Pottawatomie and Riley Counties both opted out of Gov. Laura Kelly’s statewide mask order, part of the more than 80 percent of Kansas’ 105 counties to do so. In its reasoning, the Riley County commission listed the city’s likely action as support for its decision.
City Attorney Katie Jackson told commissioners Tuesday the city does not have the same statutory authority to implement an ordinance enforceable via civil action as the state does, making that impossible under city law. She further added a different approach through code services is possible, though the violations would be treated like general property code violations and could only be levied against businesses — not individuals in violation of possible mask codes.
Commissioner Linda Morse, though, disagreed that a resolution would be effective. She says a local recommendation for mask use has been in place and did not stop COVID-19 numbers and percent positive rates from rising.
“When your county doesn’t act,” says Morse, “And you have a community like Manhattan with a major university and a major military base, and they don’t act, then the city has to come forward.”
The ordinance is effective as of Wednesday upon publication in the Manhattan Mercury, but following typical practice enforcement will not begin until the following day — that being Thursday, July 9. The ordinance sunsets on Labor Day, Monday, September 7, but the commission has plans to revisit the ordinance in light of new information at some point prior to that date.
Commissioner Aaron Estabrook voiced support for the proposed end date, saying he hopes two months of consistency can clear up confusion in the community and help provide medical providers — who say outpatient services are saturated — with more time as Fall approaches.
“It gives us a little bit of time to stop this start and stop, this lurching and pulling back of day-to-day ordinance changes from the county, from the state, federal,” says Estabrook. “We know in the City of Manhattan this is what we’re going to do with masks, this is what we’re going to do at K-State, this is what Fort Riley can expect and it’s going to be that way until September 7th.
What this means for residents
Under the ordinance, masks covering the mouth and nose will be required in indoor and outdoor public spaces where physical distancing’s not possible within city limits.
That includes when in lines to enter the premises, in public transit or ride-share services and while getting health care. Businesses must require them of employees working among the public, during food service and preparation, or in enclosed spaces where physical distancing’s not possible.
Exemptions exist for those aged 5 and under, those with conditions with which masks reduce breathing capacity, the deaf and hard of hearing as well as those communicating with them for lip-reading purposes, those receiving a nose/face service, those seated to dine and in jobs where a mask would create a safety risk. Masks also won’t be required of athletes of sports that can occur with physical distancing or if regulatory or athletic organizations make alternate rulings on mask safety during play.
Violations can be punishable with a $5 for first offense, $10 for second, $20 subsequent. All incidents will result in $98 in court costs for each infraction as well. Enforcement, though, will ultimately fall to RCPD discretion.
Director Butler says he would never do as some sheriffs have nationally and declare they will not enforce the law. Jackson also noted they do not have the authority to do so, as well.
Butler noted his concerns about RCPD’s ability to enforce the ordinance, saying staff size will make it tough at times. He also asked all violations be reported at the main line at (785)537-2112 rather than 911, saying the violation is not an emergency.
Butler further notes that non-emergency calls are prioritized by severity, saying that could delay response to mask violation calls.
“Often, I base my professional decisions, policy-making and strategies on previous experiences,” says Butler. “But I have none when it comes to this issue, I have to be candid about that.”
Butler says their approach may be clumsy at first, but they will aim to get voluntary compliance before taking action. He further says enforcement will vary depending on the facts of a situation, but that diligent business owners wouldn’t necessarily be responsible for patrons.
“The police officer’s going to ask questions,” says Butler. “They’re going to talk to the manager or whoever’s on duty and they’re going to determine if they feel there was culpability on the part of the owner or manager.
“Then they’re going to make their best decision based on the information they gather.”
Butler also says for those with medical exemptions, reports will be handled on a case-by-case basis with a tendency to disengage without further investigation if one claims a medical exemption unless another law is in violation. Jackson notes that if cited, people can provide medical documentation to the municipal court to stop the legal process. She also says no residents are required to provide any specific health information to police.
Ultimately, Butler says the need to maintain the public’s trust in the RCPD will temper their enforcement approach.
KMAN will update this story with additional details from the medical community.