Johnson, Morris counties sued over mask mandates

MISSION, Kan. (AP) — Lawsuits were filed Friday challenging a mask mandate for <a target=”&mdash;blank” href=”https://apnews.com/article/health-coronavirus-pandemic-kansas-94e3fab54b7b90da37bd62b5280efeee”>students and staff in elementary schools in Kansas’ most populous county</a> and another mandate requiring everyone 5 and older in a small rural county to mask.

The suits, filed against officials in Johnson County in the Kansas City area and smaller Morris County, are believed to be the first since the state’s Supreme Court granted a <a target=”&mdash;blank” href=”https://apnews.com/article/health-coronavirus-pandemic-kansas-94e3fab54b7b90da37bd62b5280efeee”>stay</a> last week allowing enforcement of a pandemic-inspired law. The law allows those who oppose mask requirements or restrictions on public gatherings imposed by Kansas counties to challenge them in court and obtain a ruling within 10 days.

The stay will remain in effect until the high court can rule on a lower court’s ruling that declared the law unconstitutional.

Ryan Kriegshauser, the attorney who filed both of the suits, said the issue is that the mandates aren’t limited enough to comply with the law. The Johnson County mandate is set to last through May 31. And the one Morris County, which is located about 100 miles (160.93 kilometers) southwest of the Kansas City area, will remain in effect until it is rescinded by the health officer of the 5,400-resident county.

“Neither of these lawsuits say that you can’t have mask mandates,” Kriegshauser said. “It is just saying that you need to come back and revisit them within a decent period of time and you need to have adequate exemptions.”

Neil Litke, a truck driver and former Marine, sued over the Morris County mandate, which contains no exemptions for religious activity, strenuous physical activity or for those working in private office space that can be closed. Kriegshauser said Litke “just believes in individual freedom and feels like the order should have more exceptions in them if people want to engage in those exceptions.”

The Johnson County lawsuit is filed on behalf of a middle school student in the Blue Valley district, who is identified only by her initials of M.M.C. The suit said enforcement of the order hurts her “emotional and mental well being.”

Johnson County spokeswoman Theresa Freed and Morris County counselor Bill Kassebaum said they can’t discuss pending litigation.

The law that is at the focus of the litigation was cited by several counties when they <a target=”&mdash;blank” href=”https://apnews.com/article/kansas-topeka-coronavirus-pandemic-4617202b57a470bcdd83f446b969d096″>ditched</a> their mandates and COVID-19 restrictions in the spring. The law does not apply to school board decisions. A previous version of the law did apply to schools, but those provisions expired in June when top Republican lawmakers ended a state of emergency for the pandemic over Gov. Laura Kelly’s objections.

As of last <a target=”&mdash;blank” href=”https://apnews.com/5381a26a3c11c49a7830bdeaa3f19c71″>week</a>, 30 of the state’s 50 largest districts had mask mandates in place, with most passed in the last month during often heated meetings and protests. Those 30 districts educate a combined 262,585 of the state’s 476,435 public schoolchildren.

Some districts that started the year without masks have struggled. The 1,400-student Wellington district in south-central Kansas was forced to shutter its schools a week ago because of an outbreak. Its board took action this week that will require students to mask up when school resumes on Tuesday.

Hospitals also are being strained by a delta-variant driven surge in COVID-19 cases, with many ICUs full and staff in short supply.

In response, the GOP-led Kansas State Finance Council on Friday approved up to $50 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds towards premium pay for nurses and frontline workers. The pay would be capped at $13 an hour and $25,000 a year to comply with federal guidelines.

Jon Rolph, a Wichita restaurant company CEO who sits on a task force with top legislators that recommended the proposal, said a reason for the program is to “make sure we’re saying loud and clear how much we appreciate these nurses, these frontline workers, who are experiencing all kinds of stress.”

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Andy Tsubasa Field contributed from this report from Topeka, Kansas. Field is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.