Published July 14th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
LEAVENWORTH, Kan. — If you’re walking into the Leavenworth Walmart wearing a mask, you’re in the minority.
As you walk up and down the aisles looking for essentials like food, laundry detergent or toilet paper, fewer than half of the people are wearing the face mask that has been scientifically proven to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Behold the politicization of a pandemic.
Medical science spurred Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly to issue an executive order requiring the use of face masks in public places on July 2. Devotion to local control — seemingly supported by a majority on the streets — is the primary reason 92 of the state’s 105 counties are not following that order.
For proof of that politicization in Leavenworth County, just ask its citizens on both sides of the mask debate.
“Now it is being politicized for sure,” said Sabrina Darley, who will wear a mask when required but does not support a mask mandate. “It’s going to be a major issue in the campaign and the debates, and oh my gosh, they are going to be bashing and bashing each other.”
Donnene Mann, a supporter of the mask mandate who is in her 60s and has a pre-existing condition that could put her at risk of coronavirus, blames the political division on President Trump.
“When you have a president telling you not to pay attention, and you have a democratic governor who is telling you a ‘lie’ or a ‘hoax,’ then you have these people falling into that,” Mann said. “So they’re not taking it seriously. They are believing one man’s word over what doctors are saying.”
The president, breaking from months of downplaying the pandemic, did tell Fox Business last week that he is “all for masks” and “thinks masks are good.”
The decision whether to mandate masks isn’t really up to the governor, thanks to a new law that allows counties to not follow statewide restrictions, if they have consulted with health officials and decided the order is not needed to protect public health.
On July 2, the Leavenworth County Board of Commissioners voted 5-0 to not follow the governor’s order.
“Masks are seen as a device to help (prevent) the spread of COVID-19,” Leavenworth County Health Department Director Jamie Miller said in the meeting. “The mandate and those types of things are not necessarily favored as we’re looking for compliance with individuals in our community. It’s really what we have been after all along with all of the other health orders that we have put out and what our community has done.”
But if you ask residents on both sides of the issue, they would tell you most people are not following recommendations to wear masks.
“If you go to Walmart or Home Depot, you will find that probably two-thirds of the people don’t have masks (on),” Mann said. “I don’t think anyone in this area really takes it seriously.”
Darley thinks the number of people not wearing masks is even higher.
“We are about 80-20 against mandatory masks in my opinion,” Darley said. “And just from observations on the streets from people who are not voluntarily wearing them.”
The 5-0 vote has some concerned citizens worried that their local government doesn’t have their public health in mind.
“It bothers me that their concern is pacifying the crybabies rather than actually addressing the health issue that COVID causes,” Mann said. “I’m not at all pleased that our local government has chosen to ignore what the governor has recommended. I don’t think that’s the way to handle it.”
However, comments from local officials indicate they understand the need for masks, but are concerned about the difficulty enforcing a mandate.
Commissioner Vicky Kaaz, who represents the 2nd district of Leavenworth County, voiced adamant support of wearing masks in the July 2 meeting. Her son and his family had recently come down with the virus.
“I just want to reiterate that out of respect for others and being responsible that it is essential that community members, if there are no health reasons that they face for them not to wear their mask, they need to use the mask,” Kaaz said in the meeting. “It is science. This isn’t a political issue.”
But the comments from one of her fellow board members indicate that this is seen as a political issue — one of local control.
Commissioner Jeff Culbertson, who represents the 1st district, said he received 300 emails from community members, and that all but three were against the mask mandate. He also likened this form of government control to that of the British control over the colonies in 1776.
“The bigger picture is it’s not so much about wearing a mask, it’s more about being told what to do,” Culbertson said. “It’s ironic to me that the government is going to impose this power over us just days before Independence Day. It didn’t work out so good in 1776. I’m not so sure it’s going to work out so good today.”
That sentiment of a mask mandate being a form of governmental control has become a major point of argument against the masks for people across the U.S., and has been used to further politicize the issue. Kaaz despises this politicization.
“People have politicized it, which is a horrible thing,” Kaaz said. “People should be ashamed they have turned a pandemic into some political tool. I am appalled. It’s not a political tool for me.”
Kaaz noted that she has been standing by whatever Miller has suggested during the pandemic. She also supported his decision to shut the county down and cancel the St. Patrick’s Day parade in March, even when there was push back from the community.
“I stood behind him 100% because that was the right thing and the safe thing to do,” Kaaz said. “And he was right. If I said he was qualified then, I have to say he is qualified now. I have to trust that he is going to come to us when it’s necessary (to mandate masks) like he did in early March.”
Miller said there is still potential for the county to change its stance in the future.
“That recommendation (for a mask mandate) could come to the board if we saw a significant turn in hospitalizations or a significant turn in deaths,” Miller said.
The county is seeing a rise in cases, and is in the top 10 for total coronavirus cases in the state at more than 1,200 cases as of July 12. Nearly 300 of those are community cases, while the rest have been reported in penitentiaries.
In Leavenworth county there is currently one hospitalization, and seven total deaths (three of those in the community). Despite a high number of cases, a majority of the county’s citizens support the decision to not follow the order.
“I have not heard a clamor of complaint, I’ll tell you that,” Darley said. “I feel fully represented and support them 100%.”
Kaaz said she did not take “anti-maskers” opinions into account with her vote.
“I could care less what those individuals think,” Kaaz said. “I am not in any way swayed by the anti-mask movement. I think that it’s ridiculous.”
Kaaz noted that she does understand those with underlying issues may have trouble wearing the masks. Kelly’s mandate also made exceptions for 11 different reasons, including: children 5 or younger; people with a medical condition that prevents wearing face covering; and people who are eating at a restaurant.
For the board, a major point of frustration is the timing of Kelly’s order. The commissioners said the governor did not give them adequate time before the 4th of July weekend to discuss and plan what a mandatory mask order would look like for them in their county.
“We have a holiday in just a couple days here,” Commissioner Mike Stieben of the 5th district said during the meeting. “And for her to issue this order at such a late hour is really unconscionable.”
Stieben said he would have liked more groundwork to be laid out with cooperation from local officials. He also cited the governor’s orders made before Easter weekend, and Memorial Day weekend as examples of this pattern of behavior.
There was also concern with how to enforce a mandatory mask order, something both public officials and law enforcement have struggled with throughout the COVID crisis. Stieben said that in their conversations with local police, they would not be able to enforce such an order. Instead he encouraged public education on the benefits of wearing masks.
Miller is still encouraging the community to wear masks if they can.
“We are still hoping that people understand that a mask is scientifically a good device and a mitigation tool,” he said. “It’s one of the few that we have non-pharmaceutically within our realms right now to help slow this down and slow down the pandemic.”
The debate over masks doesn’t start nor end in Leavenworth County, but it will continue to be an issue for those who want to buy essential goods or take a stroll downtown safely during the pandemic.
Jacob Douglas covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.