With many unknowns still lingering, Johnson County task force begins difficult process of sketching out reopening plans

County Manager Penny Postoak Ferguson (from left), Assistant County Manager Joe Connor, and County Commission Chair Ed Eilert participated in the first meeting of the 14-member Johnson County COVID-19 Recovery Planning Task Force Meeting Wednesday.

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The Johnson County COVID-19 Recovery Planning Task Force on Wednesday took the first steps toward developing an outline for a phased reopening of parts of the local economy, though county leaders noted that much uncertainty lingered about when and how stay-at-home orders impacting the county could safely be lifted.

The 14-member group, which includes representatives from the health care sector, the business community, city government, law enforcement and public health officials, convened for the first time via a Zoom meeting. The group discussed the state of community spread, what containment strategies will need to be in place for the economy to reopen, and how the local business community is faring under the restrictions that have been in place for a month now.

The statewide stay-at-home order issued by Gov. Laura Kelly is set to expire May 3. Neighboring Kansas City, Mo., extended its local stay-at-home order through May 15, but Johnson County and Wyandotte County did not follow suit, saying instead they would continue to monitor spread of the disease here as well as the state’s actions before considering a local extension. Thus far, Johnson County has not seen exponential growth of cases or strain on medical providers’ ability to treat patients.

“Our objective as the recovery task force is to outline a plan that can be utilized by our business community and other community assets to have a sound plan in place when that recovery plan is initiated,” said County Chair Ed Eilert at Wednesday’s meeting. “At this particular point in time, there is no specific date for that.”

Eilert noted that the county hoped to have a better sense of the state of play at the state level by the time the board of county commissioners meets next Thursday, April 30.

Task force sets priority areas for reopening planning

County staff have identified seven priority areas for detailed planning, and asked task force members to review federal guidance as well as population health experts’ recommendations as they come up with ideas. The priority areas are:

  • “Non-essential” businesses
  • Schools and childcare facilities
  • Outdoor spaces
  • Community gathering spaces
  • Transportation
  • Mass gatherings
  • Interpersonal gatherings

Prairie Village Mayor Eric Mikkelson said he hoped the plan that the task force created would include specific information about what was merely a guideline or recommendation, and what was a rule subject to enforcement by police and sheriff’s officials. Cities have been receiving reports from residents about violations of social distancing guidelines, but it’s not always clear whether and how law enforcement is to address them.

“We all expect that we’re going to get widespread voluntarily compliance, and I’m sure we will, but we also know that there’s going to be on the edges, you know, people violating those,” Mikkelson said. “That’s been an issue for our police department.”

Several members of the task force stressed their desire to get the interventions in place — widespread testing and contact tracing, as well as distribution of personal protective equipment — that are necessary to for some currently closed businesses to reopen.

Scott Anderson, a restaurant owner and development attorney who represents small business on the task force, said that the coming days would likely necessitate a go/no-go decision for many small operations as they learn whether they’ll get any help through the federal Payroll Protection Program, which has been overwhelmed by applications.

“We don’t have enough time now for me to list all the business owners that are gonna make some pretty significant decisions when they find out whether or not they got an award in that second round of [Payroll Protection Program] funding,” Anderson said. “I can tell you that we have restaurants that we will permanently close if we don’t get an award in that second round of funding.”

Anderson noted that he was not advocating for the county to do anything “unreasonable” in terms of moving forward with relaxing restrictions before health experts said it was safe to do so, but hoped the task force could show businesses in that situation some kind of “light at the end of the tunnel.”

Mike Brown, the vice chair of the board of county commissioners, said he hoped the task force could prioritize restaurants and salons/barbershops in developing guidelines for safely reopening. He said he has heard from many owners of such businesses who said they were being hit especially hard by the shutdowns.

But even with the most stringent of the stay-at-home order restrictions lifted, it’s unlikely that the local — or national — economy will quickly bounce back to full strength. Frank Lenk, director of Research Services at the Mid-America Regional Council, shared economic forecasts with the group that suggested a drawn out downturn.

“The betting, basically, is that while we’ll get a quick rebound after we start to reopen, we won’t see a full recovery until there’s a vaccine,” Lenk said. “And so that’s a year to 18 months away. And even then it might take a couple years to achieve to where we would otherwise have been.”