MISSION, Kan. (AP) — Kansas lawmakers appear divided on the importance of wearing masks as they prepare to convene for the final day of the session on Thursday, generating concerns that the gathering could fuel a coronavirus outbreak in the Legislature and further complicate efforts to reopen.
Gov. Laura Kelly meanwhile announced Tuesday that Kansas is ready to move on to the next phase of reopening Friday, instead of June 1. The maximum size of mass gatherings will increase from 10 to 15 people, and state-owned casinos can reopen, along with theaters, museums, bowling alleys and other indoor leisure places. Sports tournaments and practices also can resume, with some exceptions. But bars, nightclubs and swimming pools must stay closed for now, and individual communities can approve stricter rules.
The final day of the legislative session is scheduled for Thursday, and that is a cause of disquiet for some. Republican Rep. Don Hineman, a farmer from Dighton, said some lawmakers have attended open-up rallies at which social distancing and other safety protocols to prevent the spread of the coronavirus weren’t followed, and that they could be carriers who aren’t yet showing symptoms. He said those lawmakers could also be the ones least likely to wear masks in the Legislature Thursday, because in some circles doing so has “become a political issue.”
Lawmakers will mostly watch the session from their offices, only leaving to cast votes in groups and speak. Although masks will be provided and lawmakers are strongly encouraged to wear them, they will not be required, according to an email from House Speaker Ron Ryckman, explaining the protocols for the one-day meeting.
Sen. Dennis Pyle, a conservative Hiawatha Republican, didn’t wear a mask Tuesday for a committee meeting at the Statehouse. He said he doesn’t criticize colleagues for wearing them — most did, some wore gloves — but he questioned how effective they are in blocking the coronavirus.
“I wash may hands and I take care of myself,” he said. “Putting up a chain link fence won’t stop a mosquito.”
But Hineman said the risk then is that people could become infected during the session and take the virus home to their districts.
“That,” he said, “would be a terrible outcome.”″
Hineman said he is 72 and that his wife has heart issues, putting them at increased risk if they catch the virus. About two-thirds of the legislative body is considered vulnerable.
“If I feel it is not safe, I might not stay,” he said. “I think the worst thing is to drop our guard while in Topeka.”
The Legislature began its annual spring break on March 20, about two weeks early, because of the pandemic. The wrap-up session will focus on a variety of issues, including the governor’s power.