Health officials’ recommendations, desire to reopen more businesses at odds on JoCo Recovery Planning Task Force

With offices and retail businesses closed, the streets of Park Place were quiet on a Friday earlier this month. Members of the Johnson County Recovery Task Force are trying to balance health officials' recommendations with the desire to allow more businesses to reopen.

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Despite warnings from health officials, a majority of the special committee on reopening the county indicated Monday that they favor allowing more businesses to phase in sooner as Johnson County begins to reopen.

The committee also balked at putting restrictive language into its draft reopening plan, substituting words like “encourage” and “avoid” for “must-do” and “require.”

The task force drafting rules for reopening the county took informal votes allowing gyms and hair and nail salons to move into the first phase of reopening, with some unspecified restrictions on distancing and other practices. Those businesses had been originally slated to open in later phases, as more weeks passed with a downward trajectory of COVID-19 cases.

However the tendency to move more businesses ahead on the timeline concerned health officials who were on the committee.

“We cannot load all of these things into the first and second phase,” said Sanmi Areola, PhD, director of the county health department. “If we jump too quickly and too fast I think we are increasing the risk of having to revert back to more stringent things.”

“If you look at this table and it’s all packed in phase one and phase two because of pressure on the economic consequence, I will say again that the primary consideration has to be health and we have to be gradual,” he said.

The reopening rules are still in the rough stages. The task force has been meeting almost every day for a week and will meet again Tuesday to try and finish the complex process of maintaining a level playing field for business owners while minimizing the risk to the public of a highly transmissible disease.

Local governments across the metro area are grappling with the same problem as they decide how and when to reopen. The stay-at-home order in Kansas City, Mo., ends on May 15, but Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly’s order is set to end May 3. Johnson and Wyandotte County leaders have said they’d wait to see what the governor does before making a decision on reopening. But Johnson County leaders are working to have at least a rough plan in place so the county commission can vote on it Thursday.

A FOUR-PHASE PROCESS

The draft under discussion Monday only addresses “non-essential” business because essential businesses are already allowed under state guidelines. It breaks the roll-out into four phases and the “current phase,” which is the stay-at-home restrictions now in place. The fourth phase allows all business to be open at full capacity. Working from home and wearing face masks would be recommended for all of the phases, and seniors and people with health conditions that put them at risk would also be encouraged to stay home through the final phase.

When those phases start would be determined by whether the county meets the White House “gating” criteria on the progress of the disease. To meet that benchmark, the county would have to record a downward trend of COVID-19-like symptoms and documented cases within a 14-day period. Also, hospitals would be able to treat all patients without crisis care and health care workers at risk would have a robust testing program in place.

It has not been clear that the county would meet those criteria by May 4. Areola has said that the trends right now look good, but that things could change and that more surveillance is needed to confirm that trend.

“If you are talking in terms of testing volume there’s no question that things are not where they need to be. But we’re continuing to look for resources to take testing to the level that we’re okay with,” Areola said.

In fact the draft document acknowledges a certain amount of risk for a recurrence of exposure, “and thus and increased risk of serious consequences and overwhelming our hospital capacity.” Restrictions may have to be reimposed if there’s more wide-spread transmission, the draft said.

Residents shouldn’t expect things to go back to normal without a vaccine or some other unexpected turnaround, Areola said.

Prairie Village Mayor Eric Mikkelson said he hoped the decision about whether the county met the gating requirements outlined by the federal government would be based on health officials’ assessments and not “a political decision.” File photo.

“We haven’t seen a virus like this before. All you need to do is be around somebody,” he said. “You don’t have to cough or sneeze. By just talking or breathing you can be infected. I really can’t see how you can free everything open until you have a vaccine.”

The phases outlined by the task force Monday would include:

  • In Phase 1, gatherings would be limited to 10 people, with restaurants and bars offering take-away service and dine-in at half capacity. Retailers not already considered essential would also be allowed to open following distancing guidelines. With the informal votes Monday, gym, fitness and salons would also be able to open with restrictions.
  • Phase 2 would allow gatherings up to 50 and restaurants at 75 percent capacity. Outdoor playgrounds, sports courts and massage businesses would be added in.
  • Phase 3 allows gatherings up to 100 and restaurants and bars at full capacity. Other business categories and sports venues would also be allowed to open with restrictions.
  • Phase 4 allows everything at full capacity and no crowd restrictions. However it still encourages the use of face masks, home work and older residents staying at home.

Gating criteria would determine when it’s time to move from one phase to another. Prairie Village Mayor Eric Mikkelson said he hopes the gating criteria will be based on a certification by the county health doctors, “as opposed to a political decision.”

REQUIRED VERSUS ENCOURAGED

Some on the committee questioned whether the draft has enough teeth to get people to comply.

Mikkelson raised the issue after some members suggested words like “restrict” and “required” would get blowback from the populace and would be difficult to enforce.

“Is this overall going to be a document of suggestions, or is there going to be anything in here at all that is required?” he asked.

The requirements already in force have worked well, he said. “Personally I’m not comfortable with a document that is entirely voluntary,” he said. “This is only meaningful from a county government standpoint if any of it is actually going to be requirements or limitations or restrictions.”

The task force rules don’t have the force of law unless they’re incorporated into county health orders, which is something the commission can do acting as the board of health on Thursday. Leawood Police Chief Troy Rettig said requirements present some challenges for law enforcement.

But Commissioner Mike Brown suggested a sort of trial by Twitter for businesses that don’t abide by distancing rules. Customers observing infractions would likely put it out for discussion and fact-checking on social media, giving business a powerful peer pressure incentive to comply, he said.

SALONS BUMPED AHEAD

Sopra Salon & Spa at Corinth Square in Prairie Village. Much of the debate Monday was about whether salons should be included in the early round of businesses that are allowed to reopen.

Much of the discussion Monday was about whether personal care businesses like hair and nail salons and massage parlors should be moved ahead on the timeline.

Two committee members – Commissioner Janeé Hanzlick and Tracey Osbourne Oltjen of the Overland Park Chamber of Commerce — said they have been receiving emails from people in those businesses who are emphatically against being included in the earliest phase because the job involves long periods of time in close range with their clients.

“The vast majority of people I have heard from who work in salons or are salon owners have literally been begging please do not open us in phase one,” Hanzlick said.

Brown countered that those businesses aren’t required to reopen. He said some workers are doing better financially on unemployment and are afraid they might lose their customers to the businesses that do reopen.

“We’re not here to protect business or protect incomes. We’re here to protect human lives and separate people to the extent that we have authority and will to minimize transmission and disease,” he said, adding that losing customers to a competitor shouldn’t be the county’s concern.

Ultimately the committee voted to allow nail and hair salons to open in the first phase, but keep massage parlors to a later opening date at phase two.

The committee’s discussion illustrated the difficulties of writing rules that would not give some businesses advantage over others. Some business owners have said, for example, that they feared losing their best employees to other similar businesses that open earlier.

Brown spoke more than once on self policing on business and activities. He recalled that the stay-at-home orders were originally meant to flatten the curve of disease spread. “Somewhere along the way it morphed from flattening the curve to keep us quote-unquote safe. And I can’t get anybody to give me a definition of what that means,” he said. The county should be watchful but not heavy handed on industries as it brings in the phases, he added.

He noted the Superbowl celebration did not result in a widespread outbreak, but was later corrected by Areola, who said the parade happened before the virus made it into the area.

“Yes, we started with flattening the curve,” Areola said. “We might get to a point again in the near future when you might have to flatten the curve again if transmission becomes widespread,” he said.