By Jim McLean and Corrine Boyer
TOPEKA, Kansas — With the number of new coronavirus cases still rising steadily and the state’s economy stuck in reverse, Gov. Laura Kelly announced her plans for a phased-in reopening.
The governor’s plan — essentially it lets retailers, restaurants and churches ease into a new normal — comes despite Kansas lagging other states in testing for COVID-19 and growing outbreaks clustered near meatpacking plants.
She called the pandemic a “period of unimaginable sorrow and loss” that “shined a glaring spotlight on the fractures of our society, the inequities of our economy, the strains on our public health infrastructure and the dangers of our politics.”
Kelly said the state’s health officials believe that Kansas is close to its peak infection rate, “if we haven’t surpassed it.”
Beginning next Monday, May 4, previously nonessential retailers can reopen for business, people can travel around Kansas at will and at least some dine-in restaurants around Kansas will be able to offer customers a seat — if they can keep groups of patrons separate from each other.
Gatherings remain limited to no more than 10 people. In the next phase, that limit will grow to 30 people. Churches can resume services, but they’ll face the same social distancing rules as operations like restaurants.
Many businesses will be allowed to reopen. But the governor said bars and nightclubs will be restricted to curbside and carryout services unless they make more money selling food than booze.
The state’s casinos will remain closed. Likewise for theaters, museums and other indoor gathering spots. Gyms will also stay closed, along with community centers and entertainment venues for 2,000 or more people.
Graduations, festivals and fairs are prohibited. Still closed are public pools, sporting events, summer camps, hair, nail and tanning salons, tattoo parlors; and other “personal service businesses where close contact cannot be avoided.”
The various phases are based on public health guidelines that would let the economy rev up again as long as contact tracing — the ability to spot who’s been exposed to the virus — is still practical.
And the effort to keep people six feet apart isn’t absolute. People should be able to pass each other at closer distances briefly, but Kelly’s plan would rule out situations where people are close together for more than 10 minutes.
Kelly also said cities and counties can issue stricter local stay-at-home orders. For instance, an extension of the stay-at-home order in Wyandotte County won’t disappear because of Kelly’s reopening orders.
The governor encouraged Kansans to reschedule non-coronavirus medical care they’d postponed because of the outbreak.
“Our hospitals … are ready now to begin seeing non-COVID-related patients,” she said.
Those rules apply to the first phase of her plan, which will last at least two weeks starting Monday. Kelly said her plan is not “etched in stone.” Rather, the governor said it aims to give families and businesses a framework for planning.
“We will, at some point,” she said, “need to reconfigure … as new trends emerge.”
The second phase of the plan — set to start May 18 — would open casinos, and bars could let in half of their capacity. Community centers and gyms could also resume operations provided they enforce social distancing rules.
The governor promised “wide-scale, rapid testing capabilities across the state,” a critical factor in sorting out the true rate of the spread and evaluating the risks of a more open and communal society. Kelly also said the state is recruiting people to tackle a “robust contact-tracing program” to see who’s been exposed to the virus.
Beyond her order, Kelly offered voluntary guidance, suggesting Kansans wear masks, as well as avoid travel or gathering with more than 10 people and stay away from people who were at high risk of carrying the virus or would be in grave danger if they contracted COVID-19.
She asked employers to let as many people as possible work from home — requiring anyone with potential symptoms to stay at home — and incorporate as much social distancing as possible on the worksite.
The governor is keeping school buildings closed at least until the fall. In March, she was the first governor in the country to send kids home for the rest of the school year.
Her words echo those of fellow governors who’ve decided to take steps toward reopening an economy that put millions out of work across the U.S. and flooded Kansas with a record number of unemployment claims.
Kansas’ new reality is similar to Missouri’s, which lifted its stay-at-home order earlier in the week. Its initial phase allows businesses to open if the 6-foot social distancing can be followed and puts no restrictions on the number of people who can gather as long as health precautions are taken.
Colorado will phase things more slowly under a “Safer At Home” doctrine. Businesses can start reopening doors Friday, and bring in up to 50% of employees in-person starting Monday.
About one in 1,000 Kansans have tested positive for COVID-19 so far, though the state at times has ranked last in the country for testing during the pandemic. The rate of transmission in the most populous counties of Wyandotte, Johnson and Sedgwick has slowed, but western Kansas has seen a dramatic spike of cases in three counties with meatpacking plants.
So far, Kansas has recorded more than 4,200 cases and 129 deaths. The state’s 500-plus hospitalized coronavirus patients have yet to overwhelm its medical capacity.
Kansas state Senate President Susan Wagle, a Republican who’s running for the U.S. Senate, released her own, more aggressive, reopening plan two days before Kelly’s. She said conversations about reopening should have happened sooner.
“We need predictability in opening up our economy so that businesses can plan right now,” the Wichita conservative said. “They’re short of money, they have no income coming in and … they need to understand when they can open with what precautions so they can plan for that financially.”
Wagle wants to let all businesses open Friday, not Monday, and would immediately let any business at 50% capacity open if it can keep groups six feet apart.
“As long as we’re very careful about protecting the elderly,” Wagle said, “we should be able to weather this storm and go back into business.”
Bill Clifford, a Finney County Commissioner and eye surgeon, said he wants people to stay keen to the threat of COVID-19 regardless of shifting government orders.
“(The) social distance thing still applies,” he said. “Even if we start to pace in the reopening just because government entities give guidelines, it doesn’t mean that this virus is going away.”
Meanwhile, Kansas has seen a steep rise in new cases in the last two weeks in and around the meatpacking plants in the southwest corner of the state.
“You know our cases are increasing daily as we see in Finney and Ford County,” said Eli Svaty, a spokesman for Seward County Emergency Management. “It looks like it would be a scary time to just open everything back up.”
Jim McLean is the senior correspondent for the Kansas News Service. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks or email jim (at) kcur (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.
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