TOPEKA, Kansas — Democratic Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly issued a new statewide mask mandate Thursday, but Republican lawmakers quickly used newly crafted legislative powers to reverse her order.
The action came under a new emergency management law signed by Kelly last week. The new law represented a compromise between the governor and the GOP-led Legislature. It extended Kelly’s state of emergency declaration through late May. That allows the state to continue assisting local governments and organizations with help such as providing protective equipment.
In exchange, the law caused all of Kelly’s executive orders related to the pandemic to expire. Now, lawmakers have new, if untested, powers to overturn orders as they’re issued.
A panel of legislative leaders, dominated by Republicans, blocked Kelly’s mask order just hours after she issued it, but let a dozen others stand.
In a joint statement, House Speaker Ron Ryckman, Majority Leader Dan Hawkins and Speaker Pro Tem Blaine Finch said there was no longer a need for the statewide mask order as Kansas coronavirus cases have fallen.
“Public health mandates should be short-term, data-driven and reserved only for pressing emergency situations,” the House leaders said. “Kansans have banded together for over a year to successfully reduce the spread of COVID — and they’ve done so during a time when most counties had opted out of the Governor’s mask mandate.”
The panel voted 5-2 to overturn the mask mandate, with two Democrats opposing the move.
“We are close to the finish line,” Senate Democratic Leader Dinah Sykes said. “(The coronavirus is) still in our communities. There’s a variant out there. I think this is sending the wrong message.”
Kelly announced Thursday morning that she was reissuing executive orders ranging from the statewide mask mandate to a prohibition on foreclosures and evictions.
“Since the pandemic began, my administration has been laser-focused on supporting and protecting our communities and our economy,” Kelly said in a statement. “Extending these orders will ensure that our efforts will not have been wasted.”
She reissued a statewide mask mandate. Counties had the power to opt out of the previous order and many had.
Republicans had made clear they planned to reverse her mask order. If lawmakers aren’t in session, the orders can be overturned by a panel of legislative leaders called the Legislative Coordinating Council.
Both chambers had preemptively voted for resolutions urging the LCC to block the mask order.
Republican Sen. Mark Steffen said the falling COVID-19 cases and deaths in Kansas show the mask requirement isn’t needed, and he called masks simply a “pacifier.”
“If it makes you more comfortable to wear a mask, please continue to do so,” he said during Senate debate Wednesday. “Otherwise, I’d invite you to step forward, Kansas strong, and move ahead without a mask mandate.”
Numbers from the state health department show new COVID-19 cases have fallen significantly from the winter peak and are now at a low not seen since last summer.
Others point to those falling case numbers as evidence that precautions like wearing masks are working to ease the pandemic.
Democratic Sen. Mary Ware said that she is tired of masks, but she continues to wear one to help ensure everyone’s safety.
“The bottom line question for me is: How many deaths are acceptable?” she asked on the Senate floor. “For me, one Kansan lost more is one too many.”
Local governments still have the authority to issue their own mask orders, although the emergency management law also puts new restrictions on that. The law allows anyone “aggrieved” by a local health order to quickly challenge it in court, and the law sets broad guidelines for courts to overturn the orders.
Before the new law took effect, officials in Sedgwick County had already pointed to it as a reason to rescind that county’s mask requirement.
Private businesses and organizations still have the power to put in place their own mask rules.
Stephen Koranda is the Statehouse reporter and news editor for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @Stephen_Koranda.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.