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Kansas City Mayor Addresses Challenges Of Adapting To Mask Revisions

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The CDC's latest guidance that fully vaccinated people could go maskless in most settings, indoors and outdoors, surprised many people, including state and local officials. So how is the announcement affecting communities? Let's check in on one. Quinton Lucas is mayor of Kansas City, Mo. Good morning, sir.

QUINTON LUCAS: Good morning.

INSKEEP: First, beautiful city, I love visiting there. Second, I want people to know of something that unfolded with you, I believe, on Twitter. You said after the CDC announcement, you weren't going to change your city's mask order, then said you weren't sure and then said you would in the space of a few hours. I think you probably spoke for America there. There was a little bit of confusion. What was going through your mind?

LUCAS: Well, at first, I was in some ways thinking consistently with previous CDC advice that obviously we're not getting rid of mask mandates. They're still important. So many of us are not vaccinated. I am. But I think 70% or so - 60% of my community is not vaccinated. So I first thought nothing changes. Then we read the further guidance, and we started hearing from more people, more folks, some of the anti-mask, anti-vax group, as well as many others, who said, oh my gosh, it's a time for celebration and glee, and we have turned the corner in some way on the pandemic. I'm not sure I agreed with that. But as we read more, we were getting more pressure from our public, from many others, to say, hey, you've said listen to the CDC for the last 14 months, you should listen to the CDC. We should have more freedom. And we recognize we are in a position where we couldn't force the local shop, the local convenience store, to keep up a mask mandate when everyone thought they'd been, in a way, freed.

INSKEEP: Wow. Well, this is - I really appreciate that description because you're reminding us we would like to think this is purely a medical or scientific decision, but it's also a political one.

LUCAS: You know, it really is. And something I said - and I say this with respect to the CDC, but I'm not sure that the updated guidance at least was consulted with in terms of public health directors, mayors and governors and others. Because for those of us particularly here in the middle of the country, like where I am, every new order gets all of this public pushback. We were always fighting a fight to say to folks, look, we'll trust the science, we'll rely on the doctors, but let's try to find a way that we can make sure these rules are actually enforced. When we get a rule that says vaccinated and unvaccinated can be in the same spaces but with different rules suggests to us that in a way that enforcement became not really much of an element of what was being done. And we're all living in what appears to be largely a national honor system. While I certainly respect the public, I think we've seen throughout this pandemic we had trouble even with getting people to wear masks when it was the law and the rule. And you saw incidents around the country of Walmart clerks being harassed and attacked and other stores. We didn't want another protest at Trader Joe's over masks and so thought it wiser to move to a different phase of our coronavirus response locally.

INSKEEP: So what are the rules now in Kansas City?

LUCAS: So in Kansas City, we dropped our mask mandate, and at this point, it is open again. We did consider - and I noticed a number of American cities, and particularly some states in the east and the west, have continued to have a mask mandate. Some have tried to articulate the language of if you're vaccinated, you needn't worry about a mask, but we just didn't think there was any way to enforce it. Our health department folks have been harassed, too. So now no rules remain. Instead, we've gone to a phase of outreach trying to make sure that we get the vaccine hesitant to take the vaccine and the vaccine resistant folks to know that it is not the threat that they believe that it is.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm interested and, of course, I mean, I guess you're not - you're not a doctor, but you're consulting your health department and you're consulting your experts. Do you feel that you have been forced into a position regarding masks that is at least a little bit unsafe for Kansas City given your level of vaccination?

LUCAS: I said at the time we announced our updated guidance that in some ways the rollout was regrettable. A few other steps that we had taken previously in Kansas City - we actually following earlier CDC guidance had suggested that those who had been vaccinated, if they were in a room or a setting where everyone else was vaccinated and there was knowledge of such - think about the workplace, an office place, perhaps an NPR studio - then you could remove your mask. That would have been more helpful national guidance or guidance that suggested that cities should have actually gotten to a point where they reached, let's say, 70% vaccination rates, even 50% vaccination rates, that type of direction, which would have allowed people to know that we're not quite there yet, but we're close and we need your help getting there. We lacked that. And so we were in a position where instead we did feel somewhat forced with a position we could take. If you're being reasonable, there's not really a way to enforce that mandate if you're trying to split between vaccinated and unvaccinated in the same places.

INSKEEP: In a few seconds, you mentioned the vaccine hesitant. Are you optimistic you're going to get more people on board with vaccines?

LUCAS: You know, I think that what we have to do is remove barriers to entry. I went door to door in a primarily Latino community in Kansas City the other day talking to people about opportunities down the street. That's the outreach we're doing with different language populations, with other populations. And I think we have a good opportunity there.

INSKEEP: Mayor Quinton Lucas of Kansas City, Missouri, thanks very much, sir.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.