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Kansas sets new COVID marks; governor to push mask mandate

Governor Laura Kelly celebrated Hispanic Heritage Month and National Hunting and Fishing Day by...
Governor Laura Kelly celebrated Hispanic Heritage Month and National Hunting and Fishing Day by touring the Meade State Park and Fish Hatchery.(Governor Kelly's Office)
Published: Oct. 27, 2020 at 9:38 AM CDT
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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas on Monday reported record highs for its seven-day rolling averages of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, and a spokesman for Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly said she was considering calling the Republican-controlled Legislature into a special session to impose a statewide mask mandate.

Kelly planned to meet Tuesday on Zoom with eight top legislative leaders to discuss imposing a mandate for people to wear masks in public, her spokesman Sam Coleman confirmed. The state is enduring its largest surge in coronavirus cases since the pandemic began, and Kelly said last week that she wants to work with top lawmakers on a bipartisan mask mandate.

The governor issued a mask mandate July 2, but a state law enacted the month before allowed the state’s 105 counties to opt out, and most did. The Legislature is not scheduled to reconvene until January, and Coleman acknowledged that lawmakers might have to rewrite the law approved in June for the state to impose a statewide mask mandate.

“All options are on the table,” Coleman told The Associated Press.

Kelly’s meeting with top lawmakers is scheduled for only a week before the Nov. 3 election, with all 40 state Senate seats and all 125 House seats on the ballot.

While top Republicans didn’t immediately respond to Coleman’s comments, they’ve argued that Kansas shouldn’t impose “one size fits all” rules on their diverse state for masks, restrictions on businesses, limits on public gatherings or in-person classes for K-12 schools. The GOP holds two-thirds majorities in both legislative chambers, and Republicans forced Kelly to accept local control over such decisions after she’d imposed a statewide stay-at-home order for five weeks, ending in early May.

But the state averaged 815 new confirmed and probable coronavirus cases for the seven days ending Monday, the first time the figure exceeded 800 cases. The record, based on state Department of Health and Environment data, was 6.2% higher than previous high of 768 cases a day for the seven days ending Friday.

The state also averaged 32 new COVID-19-related hospitalizations for the seven days ending Monday.

The pandemic has hit rural counties hard in recent weeks. Of the 20 counties with the highest number of new cases per capita during the past two weeks, all but three have fewer than 10,000 residents.

The state Department of Health and Environment reported Monday that Kansas had 2,446 new COVID-19 cases since Friday, an increase of 3.2% that brought the state’s total to 78,676 since the pandemic began. It reported an additional 62 coronavirus hospitalizations since Friday, an increase of 1.7%, bringing the total to 3,646.

The state reported only one new COVID-19-related death, for a pandemic total of 976.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said considering a statewide mask mandate “makes perfect sense.”

“It’s an option that we need to at least consider,” Hensley said. “We’ve got to try to do something to slow down these cases of the coronavirus.”

Top Republican lawmakers and the Democratic governor have been at odds for months over her handling of the pandemic. Kelly compromised on the law enacted in June in order to ensure that a state of emergency she declared for the pandemic could last through the rest of the year.

That law applies specifically to the current pandemic, and legislators approved it during a two-day special session after Kelly in May vetoed an earlier measure aimed at limiting her power. The Legislature has annual sessions scheduled for 90 days, starting in January and with business generally concluded by mid-May. No Kansas governor has ever called two special sessions during the same calendar year.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.