Riley County on Tuesday reported 44 new cases of the coronavirus since Friday, one of the largest jumps since the beginning of the pandemic, as Riley County commissioners on Monday opted out of a statewide mask order.

The total number of cases in the county is 317. Of those 145 cases are active, 169 are recovered and three people have died after testing positive.

The Riley County Commission on Monday opted out of Gov. Laura Kelly’s mask executive order, so masks aren’t required in Riley County. However, Julie Gibbs, director of the Riley County Health Department, strongly recommends mask-wearing by the public.

Gibbs said she wasn’t surprised that the commission decided to opt out of the executive order. She said she knew about some of the commissioners’ thoughts and feelings prior to the decision Monday.

“I wasn’t entirely surprised by that, and it is our understanding that the city will look at that ordinance and vote on that,” she said Monday.

The county commission’s resolution opting out of the mask order cited the likelihood that the Manhattan City Commission will pass a mask ordinance as reason that the county didn’t need one. The Manhattan City Commission will discuss the issue during its meeting Tuesday.

County commission chairman Marvin Rodriguez said he wanted to opt out because he thought the governor’s mandate was government overreach.

“And so, I’m not for it,” he said. “And that’s where I’m at.”

He said he wants the citizens of Riley County to make their own decisions on masks. Rodriguez, who was absent from last Thursday’s meeting because of family’s health problems, had to leave Monday’s meeting early for similar reasons. Rodriguez will not be at this Thursday’s meeting.

Rodriguez asserted more people have died from the flu than the coronavirus this year and said it is “not right” to force people to wear masks.

“It is not right that the people are ordered to do that when there is more people dying of the normal flu,” he said.

For the 2019-20 flu season, which lasted from Sept. 1 through May 31, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported 141 deaths related to the flu and 1,375 deaths related to pneumonia. Government officials say the two are closely related. KDHE has reported 280 deaths related to the coronavirus as of Monday. The state had its first reported case on March 7. There have been three deaths in Riley County.

Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported more coronavirus-related deaths than flu-related deaths.

The commission voted on opting out of the mask requirement during a part of the meeting called “commissioner comments.” The item was not listed on the commission agenda Monday.

Riley County Counselor Clancy Holeman said the commission was allowed to approve the motion despite the issue not being on the agenda. Holeman said the county had to come up with specific reasons for opting out of the executive order.

The other two commissioners, John Ford and Ron Wells, decided Thursday to not take any action until they saw what the Manhattan City Commission would do at its meeting this Tuesday. A majority of city commissioners previously expressed support for a mask mandate in the city. By not taking action, county commissioners allowed the governor’s mask mandate to take effect Friday.

Ford was wearing a mask at the meeting Monday. Wells and Rodriguez were not. They made no comment on their own choice not to wear masks.

Wells and Rodriguez indicated they think the risk of the coronavirus is low in rural areas of the county, so they felt like masks did not need to be mandated in those areas.

Wells said he made the motion because it is likely the city will enact a mask mandate.

“I feel that the risk in rural and Riley County is relatively low, is for my reason for making the motion,” Wells said.