More people, businesses cover up as face masks become mandatory in Wichita
WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - Since face masks became mandatory in the City of Wichita Friday (July 3), more people and places in town are covering up. But one of the questions that follows Friday’s special meeting where the ordinance passed is, how can the city make mask-wearing in public a requirement when Sedgwick County decided only to make it a recommendation?
On Friday, the ordinance narrowly passed 4-3. The Wichita City Council members opposed to the ordinance expressed concerns over the legality of the move. However, Wichita Mayor Brandon Whipple said the city’s power to make this a requirement is embedded in the state’s constitution. He said the issue should be about public health and not politics.
“We’re on the same trajectory as Houston right now, which is almost out of ICU beds in the hospital. The numbers just don’t support that a recommendation works. I wish it did. I wish that we weren’t in this situation,” said Mayor Whipple. “I hate the fact that we’re in a situation and no one likes masks. No one wants to be doing what we’re having to do but there’s really no easy decisions anymore. There’s only less terrible decisions.”
However, three members of the city council said a further legal review of the ordinance was needed to make sure it complied with the law.
“I think we need to review this as soon as possible. Give us some time to look into this and hopefully, we can get some more legal input on this,” said Wichita City Council member Jef Blubaugh, representing the city’s fourth district.
He added, “I do have deep concerns about this. I did address it during the meeting that I wanted to know if we had any other legal alternatives that we could go and look at to investigate this. So that we had another set of eyes on this rather than only the city legal department.”
Blubaugh said his main concern is how quickly the council acted on the ordinance without outside legal advice.
“Wearing a mask is a great idea, but coming down to what you can do, what you can’t do, I don’t want to police that,” he said. “I think we’re treading down a dangerous path in mandating this.”
Whipple said he worked with the city’s legal department to ensure he and the city were on a strong legal footing to mandate masks.
“At the city level, our home rule is actually embedded in our Kansas State Constitution, which means it’s at the highest level of authority,” Whipple said. “Where the county level is statutory, which means that the Kansas Legislature provided them home rule. It’s a little confusing but think of it as like the primary source of law in Kansas is our Kansas Constitution, so we were granted home rule authority by the Kansas Constitution. It’s really airtight. I’m not a lawyer by the way but this is from our legal team, who schooled me on this. Our ordinance is done the same as other ordinances. So we passed this as any other ordinance that we have in the city of Wichita.”
He said he also reached out to the municipality advocacy group, National League of Cities, which he said told him the city has the legal authority to pass this ordinance.
Blubaugh said he’s hoping Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt will review what the city passed and provide guidance.
“What is enforceable, what isn’t enforceable, and help provide us whether this is even legal or not,” he said.
Whipple said is needed to reduce the spread of the virus.
“We’re in a health crisis that our next step if we don’t do this right is going to be another statewide shutdown. Kids won’t be able to go back to school. That’s what I’ve been taking into account is our vulnerable population who will get sick,” said Whipple.
Eyewitness News reached out to Schmidt Monday and received the following response:
“As we explained last week, the Legislature has limited the governor’s use of emergency powers under the Kansas Emergency Management Act. Under those new limitations, counties may opt out of the governor’s emergency orders by adopting less-stringent alternatives. Cities do not have authority to enforce the governor’s orders, including the order regarding facemasks.
“However, under the Kansas Constitution, cities do have home rule authority to legislate locally regarding their own affairs. Under that authority – which is different from the Kansas Emergency Management Act – cities generally may adopt their own ordinances on any subject unless the Legislature or some other provision of law prohibits them from doing so. To the best of our knowledge, the Legislature has not enacted state law that prohibits cities from enacting local ordinances that regulate the wearing of facemasks.”
The City of Wichita encourages residents with questions or concerns about the facemask ordinance to call the city’s new mask hotline at 316-303-8255, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Wichita.gov/coronavirus. The city asks that residents don’t call 911 about facemasks.
Eyewitness News on Monday visited a pair of local businesses with different takes on the new mandate. The Spice Merchant is among Wichita businesses that have been requiring customers to wear facemasks since it reopened in May.
Spice Merchant owner Bob Boewe said he agrees with the Wichita City Council’s facemask mandate.
“I’m disappointed in our county commissioners, totally disappointed in them, and I’m glad the mayor finally issued a mandate that everybody needs to. That’s the only way you’re going to stop this situation, is that everybody has to participate and those people who feel it’s imposing on their personal rights, I don’t have time for that, I’m sorry” he said.
At Westlake Ace Hardware on Central and Woodlawn, the store doesn’t require masks.
“We’re not requiring them, no. We’re just asking,” general manager Michael Thornton said. “They know the policy. We’re not going to talk to anybody to tell them they have to wear a mask.”
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