Let’s see if I can clarify where things stand on the subject of masks in Manhattan. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds.
Basically, it’s this: Most of the Manhattan City Commission — that is, our elected leaders who decide on local ordinances — thinks that you really still ought to be wearing a mask. Most of them even think that the government still ought to require you to mask up.
But I also think the most likely scenario is that the city will basically hand over responsibility on this to the Riley County Health Department, one way or another. And so whether there will be a mask requirement in place after this month comes down to one person’s call. Back to that in a minute.
The issue that has everybody tied up in knots is whether it ought to be the city government itself that has the requirement, or whether that ought to be up to the county government. And when I say the “county government,” what I mean is the head of the health department. That person is responsible for handling pandemics, and is empowered to make rules to protect the public health.
Clearly, two of three city commissioners think that the responsibility ought to reside with that person, and therefore that the city should get rid of its own regulation. Those commissioners are Wynn Butler and Aaron Estabrook. Mayor Butler is generally anti-mask, whereas Commissioner Estabrook is generally pro-mask. But they agree on the responsibility.
Two other commissioners — Linda Morse and Usha Reddi — think that a mask requirement is so important that the city should leave its own requirement in place. They don’t want to give control to the county.
Commissioner Mark Hatesohl is so anti-mask that he’s saying he’ll vote against anything, even if it’s specifically left up to the county. (To be clear, the county also has a mask requirement, although Health Department Director Julie Gibbs has said she’ll review whether it continues to be necessary at the end of this month.)
So where are we?
I can’t predict the future, but here’s a guess: It really is all up to Julie Gibbs after the end of the month. And, to a certain extent, Wal-Mart.
Let me explain.
Unless somebody is willing to change the positions they’ve already staked out, nothing is going to garner three votes on the Manhattan City Commission. Extending the mask requirement will get the support of two; killing it will get the support of two; and specifically farming it off to the county will get the support of two. You’ve got to get to three.
So, without anything earning a majority, the existing ordinance will remain in place — meaning it will expire on April 1. The thing is — as I already said — you could still be required to wear a mask in public if Ms. Gibbs extends the existing countywide requirement.
Manhattan is a funny critter, with part of the city actually in another county. And Pottawatomie County has no mask requirement. The part of Manhattan that lies in Pott County — including Wal-Mart, the east Dillons and other stores — would at that point have no government requirement. Stores themselves could require masks, as many currently do. But of course that would be subject to change at any time.
Got it? If you do, you have passed the 300-level course on local Manhattan government. Here’s your certificate. See you in grad school, where we’ll discuss school district budgeting and the police department.
My own view? I think everybody ought to wear a mask until we’ve achieved some scientifically significant level of vaccination. I’m tempted to say “herd immunity,” but the reality is that I don’t know if that’s the right standard. The need for government regulation on any of this stuff continues to diminish, particularly after we’ve vaccinated all the elderly and medical workers.
I do think Commissioners Butler and Estabrook have a pretty good compromise position, but it also appears to me that doing nothing will nearly amount to the same thing, and my guess is that’s where we’re headed.