No masks, just questions, in Kansas counties with no cases

In this photo provided by tavern owner Erin Wright, people gather outside the Towns End Tavern in Sharon Springs, Kan., Wednesday, July 22, 2020. The tavern isn't requiring customers to wear masks, but it is asking questions about their travels if they come from outside Wallace County, which is one of the last two in Kansas to have no reported coronavirus cases. (Erin Wright via AP) (Erin Wright, Erin Wright)

TOPEKA, Kan. – Some businesses in two western Kansas counties that have yet to report a single positive coronavirus case aren’t requiring customers to wear face masks — but they are asking whether they have traveled outside the county.

Business owners in Rawlins and Wallace counties say they agree with local officials' decisions to opt out of an order from Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly requiring people to wear masks in public. In Wallace County, which borders Colorado, one restaurant posted on social media a graphic of a crossed out man with a face mask.

Kansas has reported more than 25,000 coronavirus cases since the pandemic reached the state in early March, first in the Kansas City area. The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

State officials have been alarmed at a resurgence of the novel coronavirus over the past six weeks, and the Kansas health department on Friday reported the worst weeklong spike in COVID-19-related deaths since late May, with 27 over seven days, to bring the total to 326. But so far, Rawlins County, with about 1,500 residents, and Wallace County, with about 2,500, remain no-case islands on the state health department's coronavirus map.

“I think people are comfortable with the local officials making the decisions. And of course they are very vocal when they don’t agree. So I think the local officials have shown us over this whole pandemic that they have our best interests at heart,” said Erin Wright, owner of Towns End Tavern in Sharon Springs, the Wallace County restaurant that used the no-mask graphic on social media last month.

Rawlins and Wallace counties are among 10 counties with the lowest testing rates in Kansas, a state with a testing rate that is 45th in the nation, according to the Reno County Health Department’s analysis of national testing data.

With coronavirus cases increasing in neighboring counties, some local businesses are asking customers if they have traveled outside the county or, if they don’t look familiar, where they live — even if they're not requiring masks. Although the governor announced a mask mandate last month, counties can opt out of it.

At Towns End Tavern, a sign says staff will assign customers to their seats. Wright said that allows staff to see everyone entering the establishment.

“So the girls can kind of say, ‘Oh, where are you from?’ ‘You’re new here’,” Wright said, adding that staff would then ask if customers have experienced coronavirus symptoms.

In Atwood in Rawlins County, A 2nd Look Styling Salon owner Angie Green said she also asks people about symptoms and recent travel when she books appointments. Last week, Green turned down a customer from a nearby county. Green said the customer told her she "might have been in the same place” as someone infected with COVID-19.

“I just didn’t feel right about it. And I so hated to tell her no because I appreciated her honesty,” Green said. “That’s probably the biggest thing we have in our neck of the woods. Trust.”

Meanwhile, the testing rate in the two counties lags well behind the Kansas 9.5% average, according to the state health department.

Wallace County’s testing rate is the ninth-lowest in the state, while Rawlins County's is the second-lowest. Fifty-seven Wallace County residents and 59 Rawlins County residents have been tested, according to the state agency.

The Rawlins County Health Center, the only hospital in that county, provides nasal swab tests. Spokeswoman Suzanna Koel said it is “always possible” that someone could already have COVID-19 but has not been tested. Asked whether the county has tested enough residents, she said neighboring Cheyenne County has a lower testing rate than Rawlins County and has two confirmed cases.

As Rawlins County businesses remain on edge with cases increasing in neighboring counties, it might be hard for public health officials to keep a first COVID-19 case confidential in an area where “everybody knows everybody,” said Green, the salon owner. People in the community have said they would “feel sorry” for a Rawlins County resident who gets infected with the coronavirus, she added.

“You’re not supposed to know, but you’re going to know in this community, and it’s going to be hard,” Green said.


Andy Tsubasa Field is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.