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Here's What Kansas City Should Know About Face Mask Mandates As COVID Worsens Again

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas talks with attendants at a press conference in early March.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas talks with attendants at a press conference in early March.

Despite rising cases, local leaders are shunning mask mandates largely because they say they don’t work.

Although Missouri is the epicenter of a new surge of COVID-19 cases, Kansas City-area leaders are only recommending— not mandating — that unvaccinated people wear face masks.

Echoing standing guidance from the federal government, the health leaders say masks are an important tool for stopping the spread of the coronavirus, especially for at-risk groups.

But they stopped short of issuing any sort of requirement, saying it wouldn't be effective — a change in strategy from earlier in the pandemic.

“We hope people will see the numbers and realize we are nearing the COVID crisis we saw in the winter,” health department spokeswoman Michelle Pekarsky wrote in an email to KCUR. “We are counting on the good hearts of the people who live and work in Kansas City to protect themselves and each other.”

Here's what you need to know about COVID-19 and face masks in Kansas City.

What is the current level COVID-19 risk in the Kansas City area?

Around 142 new COVID-19 cases have been reported each day in the area during the last week, more than double the number from the start of June. New case numbers still remain much lower than during the winter surge, but COVID hospitalizations have been increasing quickly to an average of about 90 per day.

Several metro hospitals are at or near intensive care unit capacity, and additional COVID patients could strain the hospital system even further.

What are the latest recommendations from local health departments?

The most recent advisory issued by health departments across the metro area urged all residents 12 and older who have not already been vaccinated to seek vaccination immediately.

That advisory recommended masks for people who are unvaccinated, as well as for people who may be vaccinated but have underlying health conditions that might put them at higher risk for severe illness. For these groups, masks should be worn indoors, when in crowded places, or when in close contact with others who are not vaccinated.

The recommendation is identical to the current recommendations from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention.

The local departments also noted that most residents are not fully vaccinated, and people should maintain physical distancing when vaccination status is unknown.

Are local health departments considering mask mandates again?

Kansas City, Missouri, and Johnson County dropped their local mask mandates back in May, when coronavirus cases were on the decline. Even though infections have recently risen to their worst levels in months, those health departments are not planning to return to mask requirements.

“Mask mandates are unpopular,” wrote Pekarsky. “The motivation to wear a mask needs to come from somewhere else other than a mandate.”

The head of Johnson County’s health department, Dr. Sanmi Areola, also said no mandates or business restrictions are being considered.

“JCDHE monitors virus trends closely and will work with partners to make decisions to ensure the health and safety of the community,” Areola wrote to KCUR.

Areola added that no specific number of cases or case trends would trigger a mandate.

Some cities across the country, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, have taken steps to reintroduce mask requirements. And leaders in Springfield, Missouri — where the more contagious delta variant has taken hold — have started soliciting public opinion on a new mandate.

Are local actions out of sync with recommendations from health experts?

Local governments in the Kansas City area say they based decisions about mandates and COVID restrictions not just on health considerations, but also on the needs of businesses and public sentiment.

When Kansas City removed its mask mandate in May, Mayor Quinton Lucas acknowledged it was not done in the interest of health, but because the mandate was “unenforceable.”

“We found, somewhat regrettably, that it is the most prudent option for us now to proceed to rescind our mask mandate and Kansas City’s emergency order in its entirety,” Lucas said.

Speaking onKCUR's Up To Date on Wednesday, city health director Rex Archer said mask mandates won't work unless they come from Missouri as a whole.

"Very few folks live, shop, pray, play, and go to school in just one jurisdiction," Archer says. "And so if any one single jurisdiction tries to do something, it’s not very effective.”

Though health department are now encouraging masks, they continue to largely focus their messaging on vaccinations, which experts agree is the most effective way of curbing COVID-19.

Just 38.5% of Kansas City residents are fully vaccinated — below even Missouri's low rate of about 40%, and far below the national average.

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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