Kansas set a new record Monday for its worst two-week spike in reported coronavirus cases since the pandemic began, prompting its Democratic governor to issue a stern public warning meant to push the public and local officials in her red state into accepting masks in public as necessary.
Gov. Laura Kelly said the state has seen at least seven new clusters of two or more reported cases in the past five days directly related tied to bars and restaurants. She recommended during a Statehouse news conference that counties delay lifting their last restrictions on public gatherings.
Kelly issued an order requiring people to wear masks in public and in their workplaces, and it took effect Friday. But Kansas counties can opt-out, and some have done so. Commissioners in Shawnee County, home to the state capital of Topeka were discussing their own, less restrictive rules Monday.
“Kansas is at a make-it or break-it moment,“ Kelly said.
The state Department of Health and Environment reported 982 more confirmed coronavirus cases since Friday, an increase of 6% that brought the total to 16,901. It also reported another three COVID-19-related deaths to bring the total for the pandemic to 280.
During the past two weeks, Kansas reported an average of 317 new coronavirus cases a day. That was nearly 15% higher than the 276 for the two weeks that ended Friday, previously the largest spike. The state had seen its average number of new cases decline from mid-May through mid-June until cases began to surge again.
“I’m fully aware it’s going in the wrong direction,” Kelly said after her news conference Monday.
The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.
Mask mandates are in place in three of the state’s most populous counties, Johnson and Wyandotte counties in the Kansas City area, and Douglas County in northeast Kansas, home to the main University of Kansas main campus. Sedgwick County commissioners opted out of a mandate, but the city of Wichita, where 76% of the county’s residents live, voted to impose one.
Shawnee County commissioners last week opted out of Kelly’s mandate and decided to draft their own rules. The county has seen a 60% increase in reported cases in the past two weeks, up 310 from 515 to 825, according to the state health department.
“We’re approaching the point where if this was happening March, it would be a lockdown,” said Gianfranco Pezzino, the county’s health officer.
The state’s 105 counties have been setting the rules for businesses and public gatherings since May 26, when Kelly lifted statewide restrictions. The law allowing counties to opt-out of her health orders was enacted last month and resulted from a compromise between Kelly and the Republican-controlled Legislature, which had complained that she was too slow to reopen the state’s economy.
State and local officials across the U.S. have faced resistance to mask requirements from conservative Republicans, particularly President Donald Trump’s supporters. Some GOP lawmakers in Kansas have suggested that Kelly’s order infringes on personal liberties.
Some legislators and local officials also have questioned how a mask mandate will be enforced. Kelly’s order allows local officials to pursue fines of up to $2,500 for violations. However, she said Monday that she expects counties largely to educate violators about the importance of wearing masks.
In eastern Kansas, Anderson County’s GOP chairman, who owns a weekly newspaper, posted a cartoon Friday on its Facebook page equating Kelly’s order to the mass murder of Jews during the Holocaust. He removed the cartoon Sunday and apologized publicly for unintentionally using “deeply hurtful” imagery.
Patrick Miller, a University of Kansas political scientist, said Republican officials’ rhetoric on masks has shifted in recent weeks so that many encourage wearing masks but oppose a mandate. GOP officials are less likely to mock mask-wearing now, Miller said.
Texas is among states with Republican governors that have imposed mask mandates.
“It could be very indicative of where we’re going,” Miller said. “Some politicians are going to evolve on this. I think we’re still seeing that evolution occur.”