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Debate over requiring masks, vaccinations heats up in Kansas

August 23, 2021 GMT

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Debates about mask mandates and vaccine requirements have intensified in Kansas amid the surge in COVID-19 cases caused by the highly contagious delta variant.

In Lawrence, a homeless shelter and theater decided to require vaccinations.

“It just isn’t safe in a congregate setting — we don’t have walls, nobody has a room,” said Meghan Bahn, the director of community engagement at the Lawrence Community Shelter.

She said most of the shelter’s 40 guests were either fully vaccinated or had received one shot. But she added that there were some people who said they did not plan to return to the shelter under the new requirement.

Meanwhile, Theatre Lawrence became the city’s second major event venue to announce it would require patrons to show proof that they have been vaccinated.

“This decision was not made lightly,” Theatre Lawrence said in announcing Friday’s decision by its board. “It reflects the concerns that many of you have expressed to us regarding your own safety and that of your neighbors, as we experience a surge in local virus cases. It also reflects the theatre industry standards being implemented from London to Broadway.”

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COVID-19 cases are surging, particularly in states that have low vaccination rates. Kansas is among them, with just 51% of its population, including children younger than 12 who aren’t eligible, having received at least one dose of the vaccine. The national rate is 60.7%.

More companies, universities and local governments are expected to require vaccinations now that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave full approval to Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, which had been in use since December under special emergency provisions. Mask requirements also are getting more attention, as overwhelmed Kansas hospitals say they’ve had to fly COVID-19 patients hundreds of miles away to be treated.

Kansas averaged 37 new hospitalizations and 1,208 new COVID-19 cases a day for the seven days ending Monday, according to state health department data. Delta variant cases have been confirmed in 97 of 105 counties.

In the Topeka area, board members for the Auburn-Washburn district voted 6-0 Sunday to approve a mask mandate, effective immediately, for all students, staff and visitors inside the district’s facilities, The Topeka Capital-Journal reported.

About 35 people spoke at the meeting, with most asking the board not to require masks. But district data released Friday showed that 47 of its students and three of its staff had been confirmed as having COVID-19, while 163 students and four staff were quarantined after potentially being exposed.

Board member Bryan Smith said he wasn’t happy about Sunday’s action or the circumstances that made it necessary, but that the board did what it had to.

“Do I like it?” he asked. “No, I don’t. Do I have to live with it? Yes.”

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Several other districts have added mask requirements in the past week.

In the Wichita area, Sedgwick County commissioners voted down a mandate Friday night along party lines after a heated debate in which an anti-mask activist said he and other opponents would show up outside commissioners’ homes with megaphones if they passed the ordinance.

“You will not get sleep,” he said. He added: “We don’t want this. This is Kansas. This is God’s country.”

Commissioners condemned the man’s threats and called a brief recess so they could call their family members to make sure they were safe.

Commissioner David Dennis, a Republican who voted to take no action on the county health officer’s proposed mask requirement, said state government should be in charge of mask mandates, not county commissions.

“The Legislature needs to come back, now,” said Dennis. “And they need to figure out what we can do to move forward on this. Sedgwick County can’t solve the problem.”

The GOP-controlled Legislature, though, has said local officials are best positioned to make such decisions. Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, is encouraging schools to require masks. She tried last year to impose a statewide mask mandate, but she said this summer that she was no longer considering one.