Johnson County, Kansas, is now fully open for business, with no enforceable COVID-19 restrictions
Despite pleas from city leaders across the region, the state's most populous county will not be reimposing a local health order with restrictions
The Kansas City Star
By Sarah Ritter
OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — Johnson County will not impose coronavirus restrictions, leaders said Thursday, despite more than 20 city officials lobbying for a countywide order.
Instead, the board of commissioners narrowly voted to issue recommendations to the public, including limits on mass gatherings and other social distancing guidelines.
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly announced last week that her phased approach to reopening the economy will no longer be enforced, shifting responsibility for COVID-19 prevention to counties. Shortly after, Johnson County health officials said they would not impose their own restrictions.
That means businesses in Kansas' most populous county are allowed to open and operate without restrictions.
But health officials strongly recommend that residents continue to abide by social distancing guidelines, including staying six feet apart from others, wearing face coverings in public and avoiding crowds.
"The virus is still here. That hasn't changed. The rules might have changed, but the risk, I think, is fairly higher now as we open things up," said Sanmi Areola, the county's public health director.
After a heated discussion on Thursday, the commission voted 4-3 to urge residents and businesses to follow Phase 3 of Kelly's statewide reopening plan. During that phase, mass gatherings are limited to no more than 45 people. Businesses should require social distancing among employees and customers. Restaurants should keep tables at least six feet apart.
Chairman Ed Eilert said he recommends the public follow the guidance for the next two weeks, until June 11. Along with Eilert, commissioners Becky Fast, Janeé Hanzlick and Jim Allen voted in favor of issuing the recommendations.
I'm a little concerned about everything being completely voluntary. I think there needs to be more emphasis that this is the expectation," Hanzlick said. "This is the standard we're expecting. Not that we'll be sending law enforcement out or anything like that. But I think people going back to work need to have an expectation that their workplace will follow these guidelines and protect their health."
Commissioners Mike Brown, Michael Ashcraft and Steve Klika — who have continually pushed for the economy to reopen — opposed that decision. They argued the recommendations cause more confusion for residents who already face a patchwork of regulations across the Kansas City metro.
Unlike in Johnson County, officials in both Wyandotte County to the north and Douglas County to the west decided to continue enforcing Kelly's statewide reopening plan. But officials in Sedgwick County, which includes Wichita, on Wednesday chose not to impose any restrictions to control the spread of COVID-19.
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas announced Thursday the city will continue relaxing its rules for businesses, allowing them to serve up to 50% of their normal capacities starting Sunday. The new guidance will expire July 5.
City leaders plead for guidance
Health officials' decision to leave it to businesses and residents to abide by social distancing recommendations led more than 20 city council members from across Johnson County to submit a letter to the county board, asking for coronavirus restrictions that can be enforced.
I signed onto the letter because I am deeply concerned about the sudden pivot in our public health response to the COVID-19 outbreak. I work in a local hospital and have seen firsthand the toll this outbreak has had on our patients and workers," said Shawnee City Councilwoman Lisa Larson-Bunnell.
Health officials agree that coronavirus continues to spread throughout the community. And Areola warned that cases will spike now that businesses are reopening. As of Thursday afternoon, the county had reported 771 cases, and 62 residents have died from the virus.
Kansas Secretary of Health and Environment Dr. Lee Norman has warned that if counties allow mass gatherings without social distancing, the state is going "to see an increase and perhaps a startling increase in the number of cases."
Missouri already has seen large pool parties over Memorial Day weekend at the Lake of the Ozarks, leading to widespread criticism across the country.
Eilert pointed to the Great Clips salons in the Springfield, Missouri, area, where two hairstylists tested positive for COVID-19, potentially exposing the virus to dozens of clients.
"What occurred at a hair salon in Springfield should never have happened," he said.
Still, Johnson County health officials decided not to impose additional COVID-19 restrictions, and instead said previous requirements are now "strong recommendations." Joseph LeMaster, public health officer, said the decision was based on "current conditions," as the rate of new cases and hospitalizations has started to slow.
Despite the pleas from city leaders, the board on Thursday did not consider reimposing a local health order with restrictions.
"I was very disappointed in the outcome of today's county commission meeting. While I had preferred that we had made (statewide) guidelines enforceable, there wasn't support for it," Hanzlick later wrote on Facebook.
Fast argued that city leaders need more guidance from the county. She has pushed for the county to further expand testing and contact tracing before lifting all restrictions.
But Brown dismissed the letter and questioned the city leaders' intentions. He said the letter amounted to the officials saying the "government should be an anti-state and take care of them."
"I would submit that all 20 of them are wrong," Brown said.
Officials fight over COVID-19 guidance
Since businesses were first ordered to close because of the pandemic, the Johnson County Board of Commissioners has been divided on how to safely reopen the economy.
And that tension was perhaps most noticeable during Thursday's meeting. Eilert and Brown went back and forth debating the issue, despite both of them agreeing that businesses should remain open.
"This thing is turning into a zoo," Klika said of the discussion, in which commissioners often spoke over one another and at points questioned each other's authority.
The debate resulted in confusion and frustration, some commissioners said, as well as conflicting ideas about how to urge the public to help prevent further spread of COVID-19.
Eilert first recommended that the county issue guidance, which eventually passed, encouraging the public to follow Phase 3 of the statewide plan, continue social distancing and avoid gatherings of more than 45 people.
Under Kelly's previous orders, Phase 3 would not have begun until June 8 at the earliest. But Eilert moved up that date, asking residents to abide by recommendations under that phase immediately.
But Brown, Klika and Ashcraft argued against that move, saying it was adding to residents' confusion.
Brown said that businesses and residents should be allowed the freedom to police themselves.
I have full faith in the citizens of our county to manage themselves," Brown said. "The guidance you're suggesting implies citizens of our county aren't responsible enough ... to manage themselves, and that they must have some further guidance to be able to function."
Eilert argued that issuing recommendations to the public is important so that residents and business owners remember the virus continues to spread in the community. He said if groups start to congregate and pack restaurants or event venues, the county will likely see more outbreaks.
"I need to underscore that this is not a lockdown. This is not forcing businesses to close," Eilert said. "This is keeping businesses open. The guidelines are exactly that. They are guidelines and everyone should be encouraged to participate."
He said promoting social distancing and other guidelines will ensure the county doesn't "have to take a step backward" and reimpose restrictions.
(c)2020 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)