JoCo Recovery Planning Task Force approves four-phase approach to reopening local economy

A sign outside the French Market in Prairie Village earlier in the pandemic. (File photo.)

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The special committee on reopening Johnson County ended its work Tuesday with a fanfare of self doubt about whether people will follow its recommendations but few major changes to the rough draft on how business should phase back in from the stay-at-home order in place since March 24.

The 14-member committee ended an hour-and-a-half session in a somewhat contentious disagreement over what authority government should have in policing business during a major public health crisis, with members saying the rules were either too vague or too restrictive. It was the end of about fifteen hours of discussion over the course of a week.

After thanking the members, Commission Chairman Ed Eilert said, “Let’s hope we never have to do this again.”

Not doing it again, in fact, was the whole point of the exercise in which members tried to keep businesses on a level playing field while reopening enough to relieve financial strain on the economy – all while guarding against another spike in COVID-19 cases. Health officials have warned that getting the business reboot wrong could end in more sick people, overwhelmed hospitals and another shut-down.

The plan is to bring commerce back in four phases with a little less distancing and bigger gatherings allowed at each phase. The timing would be determined by data and analysis from the health department on whether the spread of the novel coronavirus is being contained.

Enforcement issues, lack of details cause worry for some task force members

The document now goes to the full county commission, which will have the final say on the particulars the Recovery Planning Task Force recommends. Once commissioners, acting as the board of health, make that decision it will have the force of law.

Enforcement has been a point of contention among the 14 members who come from government, business, law enforcement and health spheres. Members had disagreed on how much strength the reopening rules should have, but ultimately agreed to let enforcement remain much the same as it has under the current stay-at-home order.

Social distancing rules are currently approached by law enforcement as educational first. When complaints come, officers first talk to the errant individuals. No legal action is taken unless the people are repeat offenders. So far county residents have been cooperative, Leawood Police Chief Troy Rettig said.

Distancing and cleaning rules for businesses were mostly not spelled out in the final draft of the reopening document because members feared they didn’t have the expertise to give detailed guidelines for the many types of businesses. Instead, the drafters planned to provide links to best industry practices in a separate document.

But some said the owners of small business want to know the specific rules they’ll be playing by.

Scott Anderson, restaurant owner and attorney, said he thought guidelines were lacking. “I think we’ve left the substance out of our discussions. The substance is the guidelines,” he said. Although he believes certain business should be free to follow industry standards, customer-facing businesses like restaurants, gyms and salons should have more specific guidance.

“I’m not a fan for rules and I’m not a believer in imposing a bunch of rules on business, but I do think in this instance there’s going to be a lot of pressure to do what your competitor is doing. If the standards are reasonable it would give some comfort,” because everyone knows they’re expected to play by the same rules, he said.

However Commissioner Mike Brown painted a more dramatic picture to illustrate why he disliked putting in any specific business rules.

“I couldn’t be more opposed to the thought of local police or the sheriff walking into a restaurant or business and issuing citations or handcuffing people and walking them out. The backlash of that visual is so much worse than what was going on. It also creates a flashpoint for people who are very ramped up right now and are very concerned about their rights being violated,” he said.

In fact Brown was the only “no” vote on recommending the final document to the commission’s approval. At times he called the rules an overreach and an example of a “nanny state,” warning that litigation could follow from unhappy residents. “There is such a thing as your inalienable rights,” he said. U.S. Attorney General William Barr recently said his office would investigate complaints of allegedly over-restrictive shut-down orders.

Commissioner Janeé Hanzlick countered that Brown painted an extreme picture of what the task force was recommending. “Of course we’re not going to send police in to arrest people and put them in handcuffs,” she said. “But people should know that it’s not a free-for-all and you don’t pick and choose which guidelines you want to observe.”

Tweaks to final document address vaccine availability, stay-at-home recommendations for seniors

Tracey Osbourne Oltjen of the Overland Park Chamber of Commerce asked for a rewording of part of the Phase 4 that seemed to suggest that gatherings of more than 100 people would not begin until a vaccine is available. This could affect convention centers and other venues that might be able to space their attendees in a large area, she noted.

Dr. Sanmi Areola, director of the health department, said the intent was to keep away from large gatherings like concerts and games until “herd immunity” is achieved. Herd immunity – meaning that 60 or 70 percent of the population is immune to the virus – is generally only achieved by vaccination or infection. The reference to the vaccine was removed.

The committee also removed language that would have called for senior residents to stay home for weeks, even until after the fourth phase. Julie Brewer, director of the United Community Service non-profit, pointed out that older people are the fastest growing segment of the county population and also a consumer group that should not have to be excluded from the outside world forever.

“I feel like we really haven’t given them any hope on the current situation changing and that concerns me,” Brewer said. “Just to leave the stay-at-home as their only opportunity for action is so limiting.”

Areola agreed, saying social isolation is also a mental health issue. “We can only shelter them for so long because there are negative consequences to that also.” Instead, seniors are encouraged to follow distancing and cleanliness rules.

The committee was split on how effective they think their recommendations will be. Brown called it an exercise in futility. “This thing is so convoluted, it is so twisted, it is so deep in the weeds that people aren’t going to follow it, guys.” A better model was offered by Missouri Gov. Mike Parsons, he added.

But not all agreed. Osbourne-Oltjen said the plan offers guidelines that small business owners say they want. “I don’t really see it as us telling them what to do. I see it as providing guardrails that give them ideas about how they can safely run their business and keep their workforce safe,” she said.

Prairie Village Mayor Eric Mikkelson allowed that it was not a perfect document but the committee accomplished its goal under time pressure. “I think it’s at least a B plus,” he said.

Concluded Eilert, “There’s an old saying: Making sausage sometimes is a long journey.”