"It’s supposed to be a free country, and we can make our own decisions with what we do in our lives and in our businesses," according to Barry Cowden, an anti-masker and owner of Don Chilito’s Mexican Restaurant in Mission, Kansas, to KSHB.
Johnson County, where the town of Mission lies, reissued a face mask mandate on October 7 that went into effect on October 12 and “will stay in effect until further notice.” The countywide order calls for locals to wear face coverings “in any indoor public location” and is based on data showing a 116% increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases for September alone.
Restaurants and bars - including Cowden's eatery - are defined as public locations.
District Attorney Steve Howe revealed to KSHB that his office has conducted 18 site visits to businesses that have exhibited compliance issues with current or past county-wide face-covering orders. Of the 18 businesses, according to Howe, Cowden’s restaurant is the only holdout.
According to the restaurant owner, current scientific evidence on COVID-19 transmission and facemasks is not enough to force him to require employees and customers wear face coverings.
"I don’t believe it," he declared, adding, "I don’t think that there is any science that proves that."
He does, however, believe the science behind social distancing and sanitizing surfaces, as the restaurant owner has reportedly spaced out dining tables and upped the cleaning schedule for frequently-touched surfaces.
It’s worth noting that the local mask mandate in the county requires customers only wear face masks when not “actively engaged in consuming food or drink.”
"He presented me with a five-page order from Governor Kelly, and I gave him my response, which is exactly what I’m giving you [...] I feel it’s an encroachment and a violation of my civil liberties and rights," Cowden stated, recounting a June interaction with Howe’s office.
The DA has for months reportedly been unsure of how to approach the issue - primarily due to the lack of legal precedent.
"When the legislature passed that law, basically saying prosecutors had to, if they found a violation, examine whether or not to file civil action, I've been having my lawyers look at what type of civil action can we actually bring under what provisions," Howe told KSHB, noting new information may be available following Thursday’s Board of County Commissioners meeting.
Fines or closure could be possibilities, according to the DA. Cowden remarked that the latter may not be necessary.
"I care about my employees, so if that’s what we have to do I suppose we'll do that. If I do wear a mask I will of course wear it in protest, and I’ll only do it where need be to protect my livelihood and that of my employees," the small business owner commented.
The Johnson County mask mandate comes alongside a sharp spike in COVID-19-related fatalities, totaling over 251,000 American deaths, as of Wednesday. States such as Ohio, Washington, California and New Mexico have imposed various stay-at-home orders, curfews and other mitigation measures as a result of the pandemic's uptick.