GOP fights Kansas mask policy as coronavirus variant spreads

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Republicans in the GOP-controlled Kansas House are formally registering their opposition to Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s plan for encouraging counties to keep mask mandates in place as a potentially more infectious strain of coronavirus becomes more widespread in the state.

The House gave first-round approval Tuesday a resolution telling legislative leaders to revoke any order from Kelly for a statewide mask policy. Kelly issued such an order in November that is due to expire Wednesday, and she has said she will issue a new order Thursday.

Given their majority, Republicans expect the resolution to pass when the House takes a final vote by Wednesday. The measure is sponsored by House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., of Olathe; Speaker Pro Tem Blaine Finch, of Ottawa, and Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, of Wichita, who’ve all publicly said they will oppose Kelly’s planned order.

A law that took effect last week extends a state of emergency for the coronavirus pandemic from March 31 until May 28, but it also allows eight top legislative leaders, including Ryckman, Finch and Hawkins, to revoke orders the governor issues during a state of emergency.

The state has seen a sharp decline in new COVID-19 cases in recent months, and they’re now at levels seen last summer. Finch said during a brief House debate Tuesday on the resolution that no circumstances justify an “overreaching” order on masks from Kelly.

“What we do not need are more statewide mandates,” Finch said.

The new law also leaves the final decision about mask mandates and restrictions on businesses and public gatherings to counties. But Kelly’s planned order would require their elected county commissions to take a specific public vote to opt out of a statewide policy requiring people to wear masks in indoor businesses and public spaces.

Kelly said in a statement that the resolution is “unnecessary” because counties can opt out her planned order and said Republicans are engaged in “political games.”

Fellow Democrats noted concerns about coronavirus variants. One potentially more infectious variant first identified in the United Kingdom is responsible for 64 cases in 11 of the state’s 105 counties so far, the state health department said.

“We’re not at the end of the pandemic yet,” said Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, a Kansas City, Kansas, Democrat. “I do absolutely agree that things are getting better, but let’s not put all the sacrifices that we’ve all made at risk.”

In Shawnee County, home to Topeka, officials on Tuesday confirmed the county’s first three cases of the United Kingdom variant. Neighboring Douglas County confirmed a cases of the variant last week.

Two counties in the Kansas City area, Wyandotte and Leavenworth, have had cases of the variant, as has Sedgwick County, home to the state’s largest city of Wichita. Finney and Ford counties in southwest Kansas and Ellis County in northwest Kansas have had cases, and so have Crawford, Labette and Neosho counties in southeast Kansas.

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