TOPEKA — The facemask-despising owner of a martial arts school in St. Marys is enlisting like-minded science deniers to participate in mandate-defying flash mobs at Topeka and Manhattan businesses.
Jason Harpe claims COVID-19 is a “manufactured crisis” and mask mandates are a plot to test the public’s willingness to comply with government demands.
His views are outlined at unmasktogether.com, a website that directed anti-maskers to sign up for notifications for when and where they should show up as a large, unmasked shopping group, in open defiance of Shawnee and Riley county public health orders. (The site has since gone offline).
A notification sent late Wednesday directed supporters to show up at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Walmart Supercenter on S.W. Wanamaker in Topeka, and then at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at the Aldi grocery store nearby.
The goal is to enlist at least 20 people to show up at each demonstration.
“Wearing a mask isn’t based on science and is more about submission,” Harpe says on the website. “This physical mark dehumanizes people and hides a person of their identity and individuality.”
Science shows cloth facemasks restrict the spewing of droplets that transmit the virus from one person to another.
Harpe declined a request for an interview, saying he couldn’t find a news story at kansasreflector.com that he was interested in adding to the cauldron of discredited and murky sources featured on his own website.
In a Sept. 3 introductory message, Harpe complained about Gov. Laura Kelly’s early July statewide order to wear masks in public. Of the state’s 105 counties, 80 initially opted out.
Large counties that adopted the mask mandate saw their rate of new infections decrease while the spread of the virus in more rural counties remained flat up until the return of college students to university campuses in late August. Communities across the state suffered unprecedented, widespread transmission of the the coronavirus and a spike in deaths from COVID-19 in the weeks that followed.
As of Wednesday, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported 1,007 Kansans have died because they contracted COVID-19. The agency has recorded an additional 82,045 infections, which can cause long-term damage to brains, hearts and lungs.
Faced with the increasingly rapid spread of the disease, Kelly called Republican and Democratic lawmakers into closed-door meetings Tuesday to discuss the prospects of a new mandate on wearing facemasks in public.
“Legislative leadership agreed to work with me through a strategy of engagement with municipalities, counties and stakeholders to increase the use of masks and mask requirements across the state of Kansas,” Kelly said. “It is my hope that this bipartisan outreach strategy will avert the need for emergency legislation through a special session.”
House Republican leadership issued a joint statement saying all parties agreed to improve public education and voluntary cooperation.
“We call on all Kansans to practice personal responsibility and compassion for their fellow Kansans by wearing a mask, practicing social distancing and proper hygiene,” the statement said. “This is the right thing to do. In the words of the former U.S. Senate Chaplain, Peter Marshall, ‘May we think of freedom not as the right to do as we please but as the opportunity to do what is right.’ ”
In recent weeks, infections have surged in rural areas of the state that had been largely isolated from the pandemic. St. Marys straddles the boundary between Pottawatomie and Wabaunsee counties, which have recorded fewer than 500 cases combined.
Harpe said it has been “business as usual” at Motion Fitness, his St. Marys martial arts school: No social distancing, no masks, and no class-size reductions. He relished the lack of precautions in the local chamber’s 4th of July celebration.
“I believe this to be a manufactured crisis, and it’s being used as a tool for testing compliance of the public,” Harpe wrote. “The mask mandate doesn’t make sense and takes away our right to make our own decisions regarding our health.”
He said he personally has friends who had COVID-19 but were all asymptomatic. He falsely claims that only 6% of the nation’s 226,000 COVID-19 deaths actually died from COVID-19, a discredited but frequently cited misinterpretation of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He then concludes without explanation that the real number of deaths is 40,000 — “much like the seasonal flu.” The CDC reported 22,000 influenza deaths for the 2019-2020 flu season.
“There is a cost to remaining silent on the mask wearing issue,” Harpe wrote. “What is next? Mandatory vaccines?”
He urges followers to unmask together “by signing up to receive announcements to attend large shopping groups at local stores now requiring masks for service.” And, if they are interested, he is offering $22 Unmask Together T-shirts.
Followers are supposed to enter the store, then unmask together in silence. They are directed not to bring signs and to be respectful of others.
It wasn’t clear who else might be associated with Harpe’s movement or his professionally designed website.
Craig Barnes, who serves as a spokesman for the Shawnee County Health Department, said public officials were aware of the potential demonstrations.
“We’re reaching out to those organizations that potentially could be affected to just kind of talk with them about the mask mandate, make them aware of the situation and how that could potentially expose their staff and the patrons that are there shopping,” Barnes said.
Officials were less certain about how best to resolve the situation if a large number of people refused to put on a mask or leave a business.
“Police would respond to calls for service associated with situations like this, particularly in the event of a disturbance or if a business was seeking the removal of a person,” said Gretchen Spiker, spokeswoman for Topeka police.