JoCo health department has authority to order businesses closed, but seeks outbreak control with focus on individuals

Kansas law gives local health departments and health officers the authority to slow the spread of infectious diseases in their jurisdictions by any means known to be effective. This includes the power to instruct businesses to close if they are the location of a known outbreak or associated with high-risk behaviors.

In Sedgwick County, for instance, the local health officer has ordered the closure of bars until at least September as the area teeters close to an overwhelmed healthcare system.

In Johnson County, however, where the cases per 100,000 people rate is higher than in Sedgwick County, the health department has not required any individual businesses to close since the initial orders from Health Officer Joseph LeMaster, MD, MPH, shut down non-essential businesses in March.

“[The Johnson County Department of Health and Environment’s] approach is to focus on individual cases and work with them to trace their contacts in order to prevent the spread of the virus,” said Johnson County Department of Health and Environment spokesperson Barbara Mitchell in an email. “The previous stay-at-home and large gathering orders of the state and county may have indirectly caused some non-essential businesses to close, but those orders were also primarily directed at controlling the public movement of individuals.”

There have, however, been instances in Johnson County in which employees have raised concerns about small clusters of infection that they say haven’t been fully vetted by the business or the health department.

Susie Hediger, a former employee of the Lowe’s in Roeland Park, said she quit halfway through a shift because she felt the store wasn’t properly managing the public health crisis. Later, she discovered that at least three of her coworkers had tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Hediger said she wasn’t alerted by management about the positive cases, but by one of the other employees who had tested positive. She says she worked in close proximity to this person just a day before they tested positive. The Lowe’s community outreach corporate office did not respond to repeated requests for comment, and Mitchell said in an email that she wasn’t aware of any cases that popped up at that establishment through contact tracing.

Mitchell did, however, say that participation in contact tracing is completely voluntary. Additionally, local health departments only keep track of cases in residents that fall within their jurisdiction, meaning the employees who did test positive could have live outside of the county, and thus not been subject to Johnson County contract tracing efforts.

Mitchell said she isn’t sure what it would take for the health department to compel a business to close temporarily for a COVID-19 case outbreak.

“JCDHE can’t speculate on that because there are so many different situations and possible approaches to each circumstance,” she said.

Kristi Zears, director of communications for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said there are a number of variables that could go into the decision to close a business if a health department deemed it necessary.

“They might look at information like the number of cases involved, the time it will take to appropriately isolate and quarantine people, the amount of time it will take to properly clean the business…” Zears said.

A list of businesses associated with outbreaks is not published by the state or local health department, but documentation of cluster type across the state says that 115 outbreaks at private businesses in Kansas have led to 920 cases, 59 hospitalizations and six deaths.

“Two or more cases associated with one known exposure is considered a cluster,” Zears said.

There isn’t a set rule book or approval process to go through to reopen a business that’s been closed either, Zears said. The local health department might ask the business to clean and follow guidelines put out by the state health department, but it doesn’t have to follow a certain timeline.