Employees at some local businesses — including Kyle Borger at Reverie Roasters, pictured here — choose to wear one. (Alex Unruh/The Beacon)
While Sedgwick County does not mandate masks, employees at some local businesses — including Kyle Borger at Reverie Roasters — choose to wear one. (Alex Unruh/The Beacon)

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In the days leading up to the Sedgwick County Commission’s vote on a mask mandate last month, Commissioner Pete Meitzner said he received over 1,000 emails lobbying him on the measure.

“It just started all of a sudden, and then, an avalanche,” Meitzner said.

Meitzner wasn’t alone. As Sedgwick County Health Officer Dr. Garold Minns recommended requiring people to mask up in public spaces, all five commissioners were inundated with hundreds of emails. 

Minns’ recommendation came as local hospitals reported significant increases in COVID-19 patients. A majority of the public commenters at the Aug. 20 meeting — including seven doctors — supported a mask mandate. Despite this, three of the five commissioners voted to receive and file — and thereby avoid adopting — a mask mandate. 

Using the Kansas Open Records Act, a Wichita Beacon analysis of over 1,000 emails county commissioners received ahead of the vote on the mask mandate found that anti-mask emails outweighed pro-mask emails by nearly two to one. The emails also show evidence of an organized, statewide effort to oppose the mandate. 

The Beacon requested these emails using the Kansas Open Records Act. The request asked for:

“Email communications on Aug. 20 from or to county commissioners (Sarah Lopez, Lacey Cruse, Pete Meitzner, Jim Howell, and David Dennis) pertaining to the Aug. 20 proposed public health order by Garold Minns, Local Health Officer for Sedgwick County.

This includes all email communications either received by or sent from county commissioners on Aug. 20 regarding a “mask mandate,” “mask order,” “required masking,” “Public Health Order,” and/or any other phrases referencing the Aug. 20 proposed mask order by Garold Minns.”

In response to this request, The Beacon received 1,479 emails.

Meitzner and Commissioner David Dennis, who voted against adopting the mandate, said the emails played a small role in their vote. Instead, questions about enforcement, a lack of mandates in surrounding communities, and the need to focus on vaccinations were primary reasons to avoid a mandate, they said.

But both commissioners said they did their best to review every email they received, while being wary of out-of-town emails. To Dennis, the emails gave “a general flavor of what the sentiment is.” Meitzner separated the emails into “for” and “against” folders in his inbox.

Hundreds of anti-mask emails to Sedgwick County commissioners

As the emails poured in, Meitzner noticed the majority opposed the mandate.

“It was like for every 10 emails against masking, there would be one for it,” Meitzner said. 

The Beacon’s analysis found that all five commissioners received more anti-mask than pro-mask emails.

Dennis said many of the emails were identical. 

“There were a number of emails that were obviously sent out by the same group of people,” he said.

Some commissioners received up to six emails with the same language urging them to vote “in favor of Medical Freedom.” Each commissioner also received up to three emails, some as many as five, with matching language falsely claiming that masks don’t protect against COVID-19

Organized, statewide influence on Sedgwick County mask mandate vote

One email to the commissioners alerted them to the potential of a statewide effort to stop the Sedgwick County mask mandate. 

The email included screenshots from a 1,300-member Facebook group titled “Barefaced Shopping Mobs – Kansas,” which describes itself as a place for Kansans to protect the “constitutional right to live barefaced.” Group members encouraged their peers to email Meitzner, Dennis and fellow Commissioner Jim Howell, the three Republicans, about their opposition to a mask mandate. 

“They will do it if they do not get a ton of emails against it,” Tenille Lesperance-Holmes wrote in a message to the Facebook group. 

“Which county is this?” wrote Nancy Ingalls in the Facebook group, to which another replied “Sedgwick. Even if you don’t live there they won’t know that from an email.” Emails obtained by The Beacon show that Ingalls emailed the three Republican commissioners twice on Aug. 19.

Lesperance-Holmes, Ingalls and the administrators of the Facebook group did not reply to a request for comment.

The Beacon’s analysis found that Republican commissioners each received over 100 more emails than Commissioners Lacey Cruse and Sarah Lopez, who voted in favor of the mandate.

Though it is difficult to know which emails were sent by people outside Sedgwick County, The Beacon found that anti-mask mandate emails more often did not specify where the sender lived or worked. 

“A lot of them, I can’t even tell if they came from this county or even from this state,” Dennis said. “So it’s difficult to decide whether they’re really constituents or not.”

An Aug. 20 email from County Counselor Michael Pepoon to Meitzner — with the subject “restricting public speakers to residents of Sedgwick County” — indicated that there was discussion about out-of-county influence prior to the vote. Pepoon warned restricting speakers came with “significant concerns,” including limiting free speech and non-residents who do business in the county. 

Medical professionals’ opinions on a Sedgwick County mask mandate

Dozens of people in the medical field, many of them doctors at the county’s two major hospitals, also emailed commissioners requesting a mask mandate to alleviate strain on local hospitals.

Wichita’s hospitals have been at critical status since Aug. 18, though COVID-19 hospitalizations began going down as of Sept. 20. 

“The overwhelming feedback from the medical community and from health nonprofits and experts has not been up for debate” regarding the positive impact of mask mandates, wrote Aaron Walker, Chair of the Health Alliance of Sedgwick County and Director of Cairn Health, in an email to The Beacon. 

But commissioners gave medical professionals varying weight in their vote. 

“My priority is listening to health professionals and our medical community,” Cruse said. “Yes, I do listen to community members. But at the end of the day, this is a public health crisis, and I have to listen to those who are experts in that field.”

But Dennis said impact on the economy and citizens should also be taken into consideration. 

“There’s a lot more that goes into it than just saying the doctors think this is a great idea,” Dennis said.

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Hack covers local government for The Wichita Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.