Kansas House candidates on the issues: Gov. Kelly’s response to COVID-19 in Kansas

Kansas COVID-19 vaccines

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly puts on a mask after a news conference on June 22.

Last month, we asked our readers what issues they wanted to hear the candidates running for office address ahead of November’s general election. Based on the input we received, we developed a five-item questionnaire for candidates running for seats in the Kansas House
of Representatives.

We’ll be publishing the candidates’ responses to one item per day each day this week. Today we’re publishing the candidates’ responses to item #1:

Gov. Laura Kelly enacted a series of executive orders this spring to stem the spread of COVID-19. What’s your assessment of the state government’s response to the pandemic? Did the state do enough? Too much? What, if anything, would you have liked to see done differently?

Kansas House District 14

Charlotte Esau (incumbent Republican)

In some ways I hate to go back and judge what we did then with what we know now as there are so many things we know now that we simply did not know then. When we declared that first emergency, giving the executive branch incredible authority to control our daily lives for a specified period of time, everything was not shut down as we were being led to believe would happen, instead we shut most things down but left a few big businesses open, which hurt many of our small businesses, especially those owned by individuals. The governor, with no input from the State Board of Education or the legislature, shut schools for the rest of that school year and left districts scrambling to provide alternative ways of education and parents wondering what to do with their children as they attempted to work remotely or navigate an overwhelmed department of labor unemployment system. As the shutdowns dragged on, many of our small businesses appealed to the state to be open, with safeguards in place, and a secret committee was assigned to decide who was “essential” and could be open and who could not, with no transparency in their decision making. Not only am I concerned that many of these small businesses won’t survive – and many have closed forever – but I am also troubled that we used what appeared to be reasonable reasons for declaring an emergency, to allow cooperation with federal agencies and funding for national guard operations, to create a dictatorship within the executive branch. The number one question I get asked is will the state shut down businesses again followed closely by why aren’t our schools fully open and why don’t we give people all the information they need to make wise choices on their own. We must do better the next time we are faced with this type of emergency, we must update our emergency powers section of statute, and we need to find a way to live, not just live in fear, while doing our best to keep the spread of the virus down as our medical community works to find ways to prevent the disease, reduce the complications, and lower the death rate as much as possible.

Angela Schweller (Democrat)

We have been presented with an impossible situation, with little direction from the federal level. It was very important for our state to stall the spread of the virus so that hospitals and healthcare facilities could prepare and stock up for what was to come. The stay at home order did just that and was a necessity. Looking back, maybe there could have been more thought about small business storefronts being able to be open if they enforced distancing and mask requirements, but with how quickly the science on this virus was changing, it was hard to gauge what was safe or not at that time. Looking forward, we must be proactive in helping our small businesses access resources to recover. It’s important to keep learning and adapting as the science comes in while listening to the community and what their struggles are. We can get through this by working together.

Kansas House District 16

Linda Featherston (Democrat)

I appreciate that Gov. Laura Kelly has based her decisions on science and sound medical practice. I am disappointed that these decisions were politicized by extremist legislators. Partisan politics has put more Kansans in danger and has lessened our ability to get the pandemic under control. This extreme partisanship has led to many Kansas school children still not being back in their physical school buildings, which has put a strain on working families throughout the state. We must do better.

I would like to see the state support businesses by enacting a statewide mask ordinance. Business owners should not be put in potential conflict with their customers when they chose to keep their workers safe by requiring masks. Yet this is what happens when extremist legislators undermine science by leaving mask ordinance decisions to counties/localities/individual businesses. It implies that masks aren’t really needed and creates conflicts between business owners and customers that will have a lasting effect on these businesses. In my own profession (independent piano teacher), I have seen colleagues lose students because COVID-19 still isn’t under control. Some families haven’t found virtual lessons to be a good fit for their child and they’re unable to come in person due to health concerns. This has led to a loss of income for my fellow teachers during a time that it is difficult to recruit new students. I have also seen colleagues forced into early retirement because they or their family members fall into a high risk category, and they can’t risk bringing students into their home studios for lessons.

I am extremely concerned with what’s going to happen to businesses if we’re forced into a second shut down. I feel like many barely survived the first shutdown and won’t survive another. I also worry about what is going to happen to restaurants when they are no longer able to serve customers on outdoor patios because the weather has gotten too cold.

I, like many, continue to worry daily about my own family, as my husband is an emergency department physician, my oldest daughter is student teaching and my youngest has returned to college. I really wish medical decisions had been left in the hands of medical professionals.

Rashard Young (Republican)

Did not respond.

Kansas House District 17

Jo Ella Hoye (Democrat)

I worked hard to help elect Governor Kelly in 2018, and now I am relieved that we have her measured, compassionate leadership. She prioritizes the health and safety of Kansans and uses the best information available from public health officials to guide the State’s pandemic response, and I will not undermine her authority to respond to this disaster. COVID has taught us some hard lessons. Our goal is to get back to business as usual, but it’s not possible to do that if we can’t get people back safely. I take this pandemic seriously, and I want to make sure that we pay as much attention to our small, local businesses as we do our big, corporate businesses. We need testing and contact tracing — I don’t think that people should be able to opt out of this. I wear a mask, practice social distancing, and wash my hands. Leaders should set this example. We have a responsibility to protect others. My priority is the health and safety of Kansans.

As a former Senior Analyst in the Johnson County Manager’s Office, I understand public budgeting. Putting Kansan lives first means directing our efforts and funding toward smart solutions. I have the experience to help get us back on track. People are struggling, and I will fight for working families.

Michael Kerner (Libertarian)

“Those who can make you believe absurdities; can make you commit atrocities.” (Voltaire)

It has been clear for some time that the numbers we have been given for COVID-19 cases and deaths are drastically wrong, probably by an order of magnitude. Many error vectors are involved, but by some miracle, all the errors were pointed in the same direction: Maximum fear. True errors would go both ways randomly, so we know they were not errors but falsehoods. CDC instructions and financial incentives made sure of cooperation from the medical establishment.

Look at the consequences of the drastic government overreaction that resulted from the falsehoods.

  1. Hospitals were forced to stop elective surgeries, resulting in uncountable pain and suffering among the population and empty hospitals laying off staff all over the nation.
  2. Small and medium businesses going broke all over the nation. Multi-generation family businesses destroyed.
  3. Massive unemployment and impoverishment.
  4. Suicides directly caused by the first three items above.
  5. Disrupted education from kindergarten to college.
  6. Nursing home patients forbidden visitors that were in fact their caretakers. How many deaths there?
  7. Compared to all these atrocities, masking seems minor, but it is a display of obedience training.

With what we know now, none of these restrictions were justified. It is incumbent on us to do what we can to stop it all ASAP. No delay is reasonable anymore. In fact, it never was.

Kristine Sapp (Republican)

Being part of the first outbreak in the state of Kansas, I understand the fear and uncertainty of those first few weeks. Amid the threat of overwhelming our healthcare system and projections of 2.2 million succumbing to the virus, “15 days to flatten the curve” to protect our hospital capacity and first responders was vital. However, after nearly 45 days, the fallout of the shutdown was being felt by millions of Kansans who had lost their jobs, faced severe pay cuts, began suffering mental health issues or had medical services delayed. A plan was needed to get our state re-opened quickly and safely. Unfortunately, the definitions of “essential’ and “non-essential” were not clear and caused confusion and division.

In my opinion, after the initial 30 days, we should have focused on mitigating risk in the most susceptible populations, allowing all businesses to open with current recommendations and procedures being followed.

In addition, the response by the Kansas Department of Labor was unacceptable with thousands of Kansans not receiving a dime until mid or even end-June. Not only did the Department of Labor struggle with getting much needed funds into the hands of out-of-work Kansans, the system lacked the ability for many to communicate with the department and lacked basic procedures and controls to get people the correct benefits. Keeping people from making a living, the ability to pay their bills or feed themselves and their families, promising payment and not fulfilling that promise for months is unacceptable.

On the positive side, many of the executive orders were non-controversial, such as those that expanded our health care workforce by allowing students, military personnel and out of state licensed professionals to practice and work in our health care facilities, extended tax deadlines and professional and personal licensing expiration, allowing virtual notary and allowing flexibility to our courts and our schools. I support those executive orders. It was also assuring when the governor and legislators came together for a compromise that allowed businesses to re-open safely, Kansans to have more certainty about the future, and allowed decisions to be made at the local level. Something we know well about Kansas we are mix of wide open spaces and populated metropolitan areas. One size does not fit all Kansans.

Kansas House District 18

Cathy Gordon (Republican)

It has been a learning time for the world with the COVID-19 outbreak. Gov. Kelly and others had a very difficult task to inform the people. I am a nurse practitioner. No matter what type of health care provider, it is our role to give the clients we serve (for Gov. Kelly the people of Kansas) “informed consent”. Prior to any procedure, the risks, benefits and outcomes should be covered so that you the patient can decide if you want to proceed with the procedure. It is our duty to inform you.

Government should do the same, give information accurately so that citizens, business owners, families can make decisions as responsible citizens. In America, it is not the Governments role to “tell you what to do” rather to give you the information you need to make a decision for you, your family, and your community. The manner in which COVID-19 was handled has caused much fear, anxiety and depression especially due to isolation. Yes, COVID-19 is a viral beast that has taken the lives of more Americans than heart disease, but there are also more survivors as we have learned how to handle the pandemic. Gov. Kelly has done the best she could have given the unknowns of COVID-19, but the economy has suffered greatly, and the of people of Kansas lacked “informed consent”.

Cindy Neighbor (incumbent Democrat)

I believe Gov. Kelly was very proactive with the information that was available. Kansas was one of the leaders in addressing the pandemic when it started. It has been proven that self distancing and wearing masks has kept individuals safe. The closing of non-essential businesses in the beginning also kept our numbers lower and people safer. Recently, we have seen updates that our numbers are back on the rise. People are letting their guard down and cases are rising in areas that were not affected previously. Schools are in session using several different models to meet the communities needs.

The closing of businesses has been difficult for everyone. I believe the original intent was for the health and safety of all. We have not had the availability of testing kits, even though these items were requested. The federal government has limited what was distributed which has limited resources.

In challenging times, we are all tested. This has been a new experience for all of us. We learn by doing. We look for the right paths to take and learn where we could be better. We make changes and move forward. I believe we are learning everyday about how we can be better and what we have done right. I do know this will take all of us helping each other to get through this pandemic.

Kansas House District 20

Jane Dirks (Republican)

At the outset, I believe Governor Kelly responded appropriately, particularly when we did not know very much about COVID-19. Most of her executive orders were prudent and I have no objection. I do believe there was confusion during the stay at home order about which businesses were essential and not essential, so I was pleased when the governor and legislature worked out a compromise that provided stability for Kansans, taking into account the diversity of our state. What is right for a small rural community may not be the same for an area like Johnson County, so the increased local control was appropriate. I am very concerned about the small businesses that were hurt by the shutdown and I would have preferred that instead of picking which businesses could stay open and which should close, provide a set of guidelines for safety that every business must meet and then let the businesses figure out how to make those work for their business.

Mari-Lynn Poskin (Democrat)

Gov. Kelly’s plan to contain the spread of COVID-19 was predicated on science and public health expertise. It was proactive and received national praise, even from the President. Partisan game-playing hindered its effectiveness, leaving inconsistent protocols across the state. This disrupted our ability to get back to school and/or work safely and expeditiously. I would have liked to seen a more effective national response and consistent messaging from the top. Virus mitigation should never have devolved into the partisan politics we see today.

Kansas House District 21

Jerry Stogsdill (incumbent Democrat)

I think Governor Kelly has done a wonderful job of making the tough and courageous decisions, especially early on, that may not have been popular at the time, but over time, those decisions, like shutting down the schools in March, saved lives all across the state. She has had to make her decisions, in the best interests of the people of Kansas, over the objection of Republican leadership in the Legislature who have been adamantly in the corner of Donald Trump and did not model any kind of common sense medical advice by NOT wearing masks or social distancing on the floor of the Kansas House of Representatives or Senate. It was a disgraceful and arrogant display and put everyone in the Capitol building at risk.
I think the Governor is doing everything she can to make sure that she safeguards the health and well-being of Kansans while making plans to fully open all of the economy as soon as possible, safely and in such a way that it STAYS open.

Bob Reese (Republican)

Did not respond.

Kansas House District 23

Matthew Clark (Libertarian)

I’d like to take this opportunity to discuss how the state of Kansas has failed and continues to fail our prison population during the COVID-19 pandemic. On April 28, I wrote “Gov. Kelly has taken decisive actions in her response to COVID-19, many that I think went too far. The Governor’s office and Kansas Department of Corrections response to COVID-19 in prisons has been anything but decisive. We now have our first death of an inmate because of it. There have been no early release programs to reduce crowding, no widespread testing in Lansing after it was detected, some units didn’t even have soap for a time and were told to use floor cleaner. All staff haven’t followed mask and glove guidelines until recently. Gov. Kelly and KDOC must finally take action to protect our imprisoned before more sentences turn into death sentences.”

Widespread testing did not take place for almost a full month after the virus was first detected and it resulted in nearly 1,000 confirmed cases. As Lansing struggled, Kansas failed to follow through with an early release program that could have lowered the population at prisons which had yet to see COVID cases. While Gov. Kelly tried to institute a statewide mask order in July, corrections employees were documented failing to consistently wear their masks for over a month after. On July 24, Secretary Norman stated on Twitter “It’s important to remember that the virus doesn’t pop up in prisons on its own. It is brought in via community spread by people who work and visit there. We must fix our communities in order to control the spread into schools, prisons and other congregate settings.” There were and are no visitations and that week I viewed pictures of staff not wearing masks. Our government chose to try to control 2.9 million Kansans in order to protect our prisons instead of adequately controlling a few hundred of their own employees.

We have seen at least 2,300 cases in our prison system. Five inmates, who did not receive the death penalty by a jury of their peers, have died as have three staff. Kansas prisons have 321 active cases according to outdated data I’m viewing on October 7th. Kansas has a moral and constitutional obligation to protect the health of those we imprison and we have failed to meet that obligation.

Susan Ruiz (incumbent Democrat)

I believe Gov. Kelly has the best interest of the people of Kansas at heart. She has based her decisions on medical and scientific research and practice. I believe the loss of life would have initially been higher if she hadn’t taken the measures she took at the beginning of the pandemic. I would have liked to have seen unity in the house and senate leadership regarding the executive orders. A vast majority of Kansans would have followed the executive orders if they had seen their elected officials being supportive. Instead, as we have witnessed, the house and senate majority leadership used the opportunity to divide the state for pure political gain. They have totally ignored the medical and scientific community and have decided to take matters into their own hands. The state continues to see a rise in positive cases of the virus and deaths.

Jeff Shull (Republican)

Did not respond.

Kansas House District 29

Brett Parker (incumbent Democrat)

I feel that Governor Kelly has taken prudent steps to protect the health and safety of Kansans during this pandemic. We are not yet fully in the recovery phases and still need to take precautions to protect each other, and bringing the virus under control is the best way to help the economy long term. We should continually look for opportunities to help small businesses and other hard hit industries recover well. It’s disappointing that Republican legislative leadership have chosen to prolong our crisis by picking political fights with the Governor rather than joining a bipartisan coalition to work for all Kansans.

Jerry Clinton (Republican)

Did not respond.

Kansas House District 30

Laura Williams (Republican)

To expect any leader to be perfectly prepared for what we faced at the beginning of 2020 would be unimaginable. This was potentially a once-in-a-lifetime event and these are truly unchartered waters for all of us — at either the local, state or federal level. I am extremely thankful for our state leaders who operated in the best interest of Kansans throughout this pandemic.

Every level of government faced an incredibly difficult balancing act in trying to follow and respect the guidelines recommended by health officials and scientists while also understanding the strain this put on every facet of our economy and individual lives.

However, we lacked infrastructure in our Department of Labor and saw weeks go by before Kansans started receiving any type of unemployment help. Independent contractors were one of those who fell into an awkward gap in how they could receive some type of relief. I know this because I watched friends experience this first-hand. The delays and back-log were inexcusable during such a difficult time in our state’s history.

I think state government needs to be very cautious about deeming specific businesses as “non-essential” and if we do that we need to have the infrastructure in place to specifically help those who the government deems as “non-essential.” At the end of the day, every job is essential to that individual person and their family’s livelihood so I think the government should exercise extreme caution when deciding whose business is essential and whose isn’t.

Brandon Woodard (incumbent Democrat)

I support Gov. Kelly’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically her fact-based, science-driven approach to limiting the spread of the virus in our state. At the beginning of this devastating pandemic, Gov. Kelly convened a group of highly-qualified educators and scientists to craft the plan to shift our schools to online and distance learning, which many states around the country used as a model. As a representative, I was proud to be part of the bipartisan coalition that passed an extension in unemployment insurance benefits, emergency funding for Kansas businesses, and providing Governor Kelly the resources her administration needs to slow the spread of COVID. Representing a majority-renter district, I’m specifically thankful for the Kelly Administration’s executive order to prohibit evictions or foreclosures during this difficult time. Going forward, we must invest in overhauling our IT systems for state agencies so they can meet the needs of and provide services to Kansans.

Kansas House District 39

Owen Donohoe (incumbent Republican)

Initially, I gave Governor Kelly a lot of grace because there were so many unknowns with the virus. When she made the decision to close schools last March, I was one of the legislators that said we needed to be supportive until we had more information. As time went on, I felt that there were definitely areas for improvement. We left our small businesses closed for too long, while allowing big box stores an unfair advantage in the market place. I would have liked to have seen a task force utilizing health inspectors and other qualified personnel work together with small businesses to formulate a plan allowing them to safely and effectively stay open during that same time period. Government should not be an impediment to entrepreneurs who can find solutions that meet the criteria for being open in a safe and responsible manner. We never gave our small businesses a chance to respond, which not only hurt our economy but was devastating to families across the state.

In April, Kansas was ranked 49th in the nation for testing for COVID-19. We were only testing 565/100,000 people. This was simply not acceptable. We need more transparency from our government. Kansans have the right to know where the tests being used originated from, the cost to taxpayers, and the accuracy of the tests. The Governor’s office has not been forthcoming with that information. Lack of transparency is not acceptable. Our government needs to be more forthcoming when dealing with a public health crisis.

We also need more transparency on the numbers of people testing positive, the number of symptomatic vs. asymptomatic cases, the number of hospitalizations, and the number of ICU beds being utilized. With more information, I have confidence that Kansans will respond accordingly and do what is necessary to reduce transmission of the virus.

The KDHE has not been completely accurate with reporting, which is a detriment for all Kansans, because it causes mistrust and skepticism. Kansans should demand transparency at every level of government. You can learn more about the misreporting here.

We all need to continue to work together to reduce the spread of COVID-19. I encourage everyone to stay vigilant and follow the CDC guidelines: washing your hands, socially distancing, and wearing a mask when appropriate. Together we will get through this time. I continue to encourage anyone who needs assistance to reach out me.

Les Lampe (Democrat)

The challenge for our leaders during this unprecedented pandemic is to balance individual freedoms while protecting the general welfare and also recognizing the economic impacts of the measures designed to mitigate the spread of disease.

In March, in response to the pandemic, Gov. Kelly declared a state of emergency under the provisions of the Kansas Emergency Management Act. Provisions included closing schools for the remainder of the year and prohibiting public gatherings of more than 10 people. The Legislature has since moved forward to restrict some of the Governor’s emergency powers and passed HB 2016 in June. The major element of this bill was to provide legislative oversight to the pandemic response. Gov. Kelly’s Executive Order 20-52 on July 2 requires individuals to wear masks when in public settings and requires businesses and other organizations to mandate the wearing of masks on their premises. These provisions were subject to adoption by local counties and cities, and the Johnson County Commissioners voted to support the mask requirement.

Kansas has had over one billion dollars allocated to the state under the Federal CARES Act. These funds have been allocated by the SPARK (Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas) Task Force appointed by the Governor. This process has been transparent and widely supported. Examples from the second round of funding include boosting COVID-19 testing to 8,000 tests per day, $30 million for operations at the Kansas Department of Labor, $35 million for housing needs, and $40 million for childcare. The bipartisan State Finance Council has endorsed the recommendations of the Task Force.

I believe the state government’s actions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 were justified. Gov. Kelly’s executive order in March was appropriate at the time and probably prevented thousands of cases of the disease. I also generally agree with the provisions of HB 2016 and the vote of the Johnson County Commission to support the wearing of masks. Some people fail to recognize that by not following the basic guidelines, they are endangering the health of themselves and others. Regardless, the role of state and county governments is to provide leadership that gives guidance to protect the health and safety of all Kansans. I look forward to helping provide state guidance for reopening schools, places of worship, and businesses so that we can conquer this pandemic and move on to economic recovery.

Tomorrow we’ll publish the candidates’ responses to item #2:

Would you vote for a bill to expand Medicaid? If not, how do you justify that choice in regard to loss of Federal funds, loss of medical facilities especially in rural areas and increasing numbers of Kansans without health insurance? If yes, how do you respond to critics who say it will cost too much?