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Kansas Governor On Her Executive Order Requiring Residents To Wear Masks In Public

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The coronavirus is quickly outpacing the nation's ability to contain it. And as the federal government largely stands by, state and local leaders are reaching for one of the few tools they have short of another lockdown - face masks. Today in Kansas, the governor signed an executive order requiring residents of her state to wear masks in most public settings. That order will go into effect one minute after midnight tonight. And we are joined now by the Democratic governor of Kansas, Laura Kelly - no relation.

Governor Kelly, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

LAURA KELLY: Well, Mary Louise, we don't know that yet, now do we?

M KELLY: (Laughter) That might take us another interview to establish, so let's stick with the matter at hand. And I want to start here. Some counties in your state already have a mask order in place. Why do you believe a statewide order is necessary?

L KELLY: Well, Mary Louise, we have lost hundreds of Kansans to this virus, and I think we now know 130,000 Americans have died from the virus. And our cases are going up here in the state of Kansas. We have limited tools until we get a vaccine to prevent the spread of this virus, and we have evidence now that face masks work.

And so I just feel it's incumbent upon me as the governor of the state to really mandate that our citizens wear these masks to protect not only themselves but their neighbors, their friends, their business owners and help us turn the tide on this virus and send that slope back down. If we don't do that, we're going to have to issue another stay-at-home order and shut our businesses down. We won't be able to open our schools next month. So there are a whole lot of reasons, but those are the three big ones.

M KELLY: OK.

L KELLY: Saving lives, our businesses and our schools.

M KELLY: Now, this is a hard sell for a lot of people in Kansas. I'm thinking of people in rural parts of your state. There are seven counties in Kansas that have not had a single case of the virus during this entire pandemic. And I want to ask - compare what you did today with something that the governor of Texas, Republican Greg Abbott, did. He issued a statewide order today requiring people - you got to wear a mask in public, but it's only going to apply in cases where there have been more than 20 cases of the virus. Why not go that route?

L KELLY: Well, because what we have seen in Kansas - and, I think, we've really seen across the country - is that the virus does not respect county lines or state lines. And so, you know, for us to say it's OK for this county - a lot of states did that at the very beginning. And then - and Kansas actually had a state - or a county-by-county order beginning before I set up - put out the statewide order to shut down. And what we've seen was back then, there were very few counties that actually had cases. But now you're right. We're up to 97 out of 105. We've just seen this virus spread consistently across our state.

M KELLY: Yeah. Now, counties in Kansas can vote whether they're going to adopt this order...

L KELLY: They can.

M KELLY: ...Or not. I know that commissioners in some counties have said they will consider voiding it, modifying it. I know some Kansas law enforcement agencies are saying they're not going to enforce it. How does this actually work without buy-in from local law enforcement and local leaders?

L KELLY: Well, you know, the people are the ones who need to buy into this. And I think that we have seen, when we have called on Kansans to respond, they have been very good on that. That's what I'm doing again now. We are asking Kansans to do what I consider their patriotic duty. And how appropriate, here on Independence Day weekend, to just do their patriotic duty.

You know, we are at war with this virus. And unless everybody comes, steps up and does what they can do to prevent the spread, we're going to lose. And so I believe that by doing a statewide mandate, by providing that leadership, I provide direction for Kansans. And I think we saw it early on when we shut down the schools that they appreciated it a moment (ph). Was there some backlash at the beginning? Yes. But then they got it, and I think they'll get it again.

M KELLY: But I do want to push you on how you're going to enforce this because my understanding is it's going to mostly fall to businesses to enforce mask use among their customers. You will have watched how that unfolded in other places that have required masks like LA, where employees have been assaulted by customers who didn't want to wear a mask. How are you thinking about that? Is it fair to put business owners on the front lines of enforcing this?

L KELLY: Well, I think business owners actually appreciate it when we do this kind of thing because it makes it easier for them to do what they know they need to do and what they want to do to protect themselves and their employees and their customers. So I think they'll actually appreciate the guidance. And, you know, when it comes to the issue of enforcement, you know, it is left to the locals or to the attorney general's office to enforce.

M KELLY: Right.

L KELLY: And - but even with that - and it's - a civil fine is the most that we can do. We cannot...

M KELLY: OK.

L KELLY: ...Criminalize this activity. But...

M KELLY: OK.

L KELLY: You know, I believe that, you know, by - we really expect law enforcement and our businesses to be more educational.

M KELLY: Thank you. Governor, I am afraid we're going to have to leave it there. Thank you so, so much for taking the time. We appreciate it.

L KELLY: OK - very good. Thank you.

M KELLY: Governor Laura Kelly of Kansas.

L KELLY: Take care. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.