GOP lawmakers in Kansas pushing for ban on all mask mandates

Kansas state Sens/ Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee, left, and Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Kellie...
Kansas state Sens/ Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee, left, and Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Kellie Warren, right, R-Leawood, confer over proposed language for a bill dealing with state and local officials' power during a disease outbreak, Wednesday, March 9, 2022, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. The committee has approved a bill to ban all state and local mask mandates in future outbreaks(AP Photo/John Hanna)(AP)
Published: Mar. 10, 2022 at 1:43 PM CST
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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Republican legislators in Kansas are trying to prohibit state and local mask mandates during disease outbreaks, advancing such a ban Wednesday along with proposals aimed at discouraging local restrictions on businesses and public gatherings.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a measure that would limit the power of state and local health officials during pandemics and strip them of their power to mandate wearing masks. It approved a separate measure to require cities and counties to cut businesses’ property taxes for each day they are forced to close or limit their operations. Both measures go next to the full Senate for debate.

GOP lawmakers criticized Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly persistently over steps she took to contain the spread of COVID-19, especially early in the pandemic when she ordered many businesses closed for five weeks and school buildings closed to most students for several months. The Republican-controlled Legislature forced her to accept a lessening of the governor’s power over time but later focused on limiting the power of cities, counties and local school boards to impose restrictions.

Many Republicans championed allowing local officials to impose mask mandates or limit businesses and public gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic’s first year. But Republicans who’ve always opposed such rules have grown in influence as conservative operatives have increasingly seen restrictions as an issue to turn against Democrats in this year’s mid-term elections.

“I think that we tend to agree that we can see in hindsight now things — decisions were made that either we hung on too long or they were definitely an overreach,” said state Sen. Mike Thompson, a conservative Shawnee Republican and a vocal critic of restrictions.

Thompson argued that Kansas officials did not give enough thought early in the coronavirus pandemic to how restrictions would damage the economy. In pressing to outlaw future mask mandates, he also suggested that forcing children to wear masks in schools hindered their development and, “Masks really didn’t work.”

In fact, recent studies by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show such assertions aren’t borne out by evidence.

“We have committee members who are making decisions based off complete misinformation,” said Democratic state Sen. Ethan Corson, of Fairway.

The Legislature’s debate on public health policy also shadowed Kelly’s attempt to keep in place her administration’s top public health official.

Conservatives initially opposed Janet Stanek’s appointment as head of the state Department of Health and Environment to show their displeasure with how the agency has handled COVID-19 in the past. But the Senate voted 32-5 on Wednesday to confirm Stanek’s appointment.

Stanek has been the acting head of the health department since November and would have had to step down if the Senate had not confirmed her.

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s bill banning mask mandates also would allow parents to claim a religious exemption from longstanding requirements to vaccinate children against diseases such as measles and whooping cough to enroll them in school or day care without being questioned. Schools also would be barred from separating vaccinated and non-vaccinated children.

The measure would permit only local boards of education to close schools when faced with infectious disease outbreaks, and only for 30 days at a time. State and local officials would not be allowed to place any limits on houses of worship.

An individual or business filing a lawsuit over restrictions would have to have a hearing within three days and a ruling “without reasonable delay.” They also would have their legal fees covered if they won.

Corson called the bill “dangerous.”

“It is bizarre after seeing, as we’ve seen, what this pandemic had done,” added Democratic state Sen. David Haley, of Kansas City. “This Legislature wants to to tell government to ignore the science.”

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.