For Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, a mask order isn’t 'an efficient use of government time'
The mayor, a Democrat, said a universal mask order is possible, but it would be better to focus the city’s public health efforts on COVID-19 vaccines and tests.
COVID-19 cases are setting records in the Kansas City area. Local health care workers say they’re exhausted and are running out of intensive care unit beds, ventilators and monoclonal antibody treatments. While a few cities in the area have reinstated mask mandates, Kansas City has only restored a mask order for schools.
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas has maintained that a citywide mask order is a possibility, but would be difficult to enforce. In an interview with KCUR’s Nomin Ujiyediin on Kansas City Today, Lucas said previous mask orders have resulted in harassment of store employees and unnecessary 911 calls. He said the city’s limited public health resources were better dedicated to enforcing a mask mandate in government facilities, contact tracing and vaccine outreach.
“I don’t think that it is an efficient use of government time to consistently go back to a place, often on the edges of our city, where everyone’s refusing to wear masks,” he said. “And we need to come up with what that right balance is.”
Lucas said the city would consider a mask mandate if COVID deaths or hospitalizations reached a certain point, but didn’t cite specific numbers.
“I don't have that bright line in front of me right now,” he said. “Kansas City will consider anything that's necessary to keep people safe based upon what we’ve seen on the ground in terms of threats to our community.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Nomin Ujiyediin, KCUR: Many places in the U.S. and also in our region have put back in place overall city mask mandates. Most recently, a couple of cities in Johnson County did that this week. Will Kansas City consider another citywide mask mandate?
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas: Kansas City will always consider what is essential and important for us to keep our community safe. So, as I've said a number of times, nothing is off the table. The reason ... we went with the school's mask mandate, was because we wanted to make sure more than anything that our schools could stay open, that we would not have to return to virtual learning.
In terms of a more universal mask mandate, that is something we continue to consider. Probably the greatest concern is just certain compliance and non-compliance issues. In large swaths of our city, everybody complies. In other parts of our cities, there are people that want to protest at your local convenience store about something as simple as wearing a mask. And we were getting to a point where it was very difficult to ask store clerks, very difficult to ask others, to make sure that they were looking out for these sorts of things.
We don't want them harassed. We don't want 911 calls about people that are … at stores in certain parts of Kansas City, which did happen a lot during our last universal mask mandate. And that's why for now we've elected to go the path that we have, but we will certainly evaluate any changes necessary in the future.
Ujiyediin: I have noticed that a lot of businesses in the area will only have a mask mandate in their business, or they'll only enforce it, when there's one in place with the city or with the county or wherever it is that they might be. So I do think that maybe having a universal mask mandate sends a message to businesses and to people in general that the pandemic is serious, and that it's time for them to put a mask on and take other precautions.
I'm wondering if you have any thoughts on seeing a mask mandate through the lens of messaging to the public?
Lucas: I certainly understand that point. I think we have seen that previously, but I will note this: I think most of the businesses that I've gone to have mask requirements and have felt free to institute those now. I don't think that it is an efficient use of government time to consistently go back to a place, often on the edges of our city, where everyone's refusing to wear masks.
And I think we need to come up with what the right balance is. It'll take time from our health folks and being able to actually do a lot of the information and educational work that we want to do. For us, it is a question of: what is it that you are able to enforce quickly? And what you're able to do in a way that you can guarantee that there will be strong compliance. And for us, that is working with our school districts and educating them that we will have to close buildings if there aren't public health strategies and mitigations that are followed.
I think for us, it's making sure that a number of our government-related facilities continue to require masking. And for us, it's making sure that we can be a good model as a city, both with encouraging vaccination for our employees, or incredibly frequent testing for those who are not. And so that's where we are.
I understand, yes, it's easier to enforce a rule as a business if it's a law, but I think there are also things that just make good sense.
Ujiyediin: Is there a certain point where positivity rates are at a certain level or ICU capacity is a certain level, at which the city will decide it is time to bring back a universal mask mandate?
Lucas: Sure, there is, yeah. I don't have that bright line in front of me right now, but absolutely there is. We would not sit idly by and see hundreds more people die, or thousands more in hospital rooms and not take more bold action. A number of other American cities have taken steps far beyond what we've seen in Missouri or Kansas at all: vaccine requirements to enter into certain establishments like eateries.
So Kansas City will consider anything that's necessary to keep people safe based upon what we've seen on the ground in terms of threats to our community.
Ujiyediin: This week, we've had health care workers in the area and hospitals in the area say that this is probably the worst point of the pandemic so far, and that they're struggling to get the public to understand how severe this situation is. I'm wondering, what do you think is the responsibility of elected officials to respond to the needs that these health professionals are expressing?
Lucas: It is important for us to listen to them regularly. That's something that we do at City Hall every day and at every council meeting. And it's the sort of thing that I very strongly support. Does that mean that we do everything that everyone would want? Now, the answer to that is no.
We have differing recommendations and we'll continue to have those conversations about what is important for us, to make sure that we're conducting important mitigation strategies. But I do not think in any way that our operations are not deeply influenced by the health and medical professionals around us.
Ujiyediin: And I'm sorry, Mayor Lucas, I don't want to single you out because I know there's a lot of cities and counties and state governments in our area, so it's obviously not just Kansas City's responsibility. But it is a pretty dire situation right now that health care workers have talked about. I mean, we're hearing about hundreds of health care workers who can't go work in hospitals, and we're hearing about ICUs filling up and ventilators running out. And I'm wondering what the Kansas City government has planned to respond to all of this?
Lucas: I think a lot of people are looking at what it is that we're gonna do. And what I'm saying very simply is, if I have 20 health staffers right now, I would rather have us working to set up more testing opportunities and vaccination opportunities as we're doing, including setting up testing opportunities for city employees who are refusing to get vaccinated, because they're believing this misinformation.
It's more important for me to make sure we're stopping outbreaks at City Hall, at your public works facility, anywhere else.
Ujiyediin: Can you talk a little bit more about what the city is doing to promote vaccinations?
Lucas: One of the things that we continue to do on our vaccination outreach is making sure that we're reaching out to our diverse communities throughout the city. We have continued at City Hall to create vaccine opportunities in the third City Council district of Kansas City all the time, our poorest district, where you may not have a lot of CVS stores or any of those types of places. So we're making sure we have more opportunities there, vaccination opportunities in Southeast Kansas City, and ensuring that at Smith-Hale Middle School, we have all of those.
Continuing to actually provide masks to those who don't have them available, particularly better masks, KN95, and trying to make sure that we're creating adequate testing opportunities in the city, and funding that. Those are the sorts of things that we continue to try to do to stop the spread.
I also note, finally, that we continue to conduct contact tracing at a time that a lot of jurisdictions, I think the state of Kansas and some others, have greatly pulled away from it. So that we can actually track down where we're seeing this spread, we can inform people and let them know that they need to be safe.
This conversation originally aired on Kansas City Today, available wherever you get podcasts.