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Starting Monday, Nov. 16, Johnson Countians will be under new countywide pandemic restrictions that include an extension of mask requirements, physical distancing guidelines and earlier closing hours for bars and restaurants. The new order, approved Friday evening by the Board of County Commissioners, may eventually come with some enforcement teeth, as well.
Commissioners voted 4-3 for a set of restrictions that stops short of a total lockdown like the one seen earlier this year, a repeat of which had been feared by many local business owners.
Next Thursday, commissioners are expected to consider enforcement language that would make non-compliance a county code violation that could carry up to a $500 fine.
Although the order is countywide, cities may be able to opt out of the enforcement.
The order will be effective from 12:01 a.m., Monday, Nov. 16 and last through at least Jan. 31. The move comes with the approval of 11 chambers of commerce, including Overland Park and Lenexa, who say controlling the spread of the virus now would enable businesses to reopen more fully later.
The orders were proposed by the heads of the six county public health departments in the Kansas City area, who have been sounding the alarm about raging transmission of the disease that threatens to overwhelm metro hospitals.
“We must act now. We are going into a perfect storm and we must navigate it well,” said Dr. Joseph LeMaster, county public health officer.
Limits on gatherings, bars, restaurants with exemptions
The order approved Friday calls for a continuation of a rule requiring residents wear masks in public places and also use six feet of social distancing in public places among people not in the same household. However, there are exceptions to the distancing requirement for businesses, like hair salons, that by definition work within six feet of customers.
The order also limits public mass gatherings to 50 people, or 50% of a gathering place’s capacity. But retailers, bars, restaurants, fitness centers and religious organizations would be exempt from that requirement. Outdoor gatherings of more than 2,000 and fairs, festivals and parades also would not be permitted. Business owners wishing to hold non-conforming events may still have a chance by submitting a safety plan to the county.
Closing time for bars, restaurants and others will be at midnight.
At the end of a six-hour meeting Friday that included more than two hours of public comment, commissioners took a series of divided votes on the order. Outgoing Commissioners Mike Brown and Steve Klika, along with Commissioner Michael Ashcraft, voted to remove restrictions on closing times, any future enforcement of the order and to suspend property taxes on businesses affected.
Those motions were voted down.
The final vote for the order was along the same lines, with Klika, Brown and Ashcraft voting against and Commissioners Janee Hanzlick, Jim Allen and Becky Fast, along with Chairman Ed Eilert, voting in favor.
Klika argued points that he has frequently made in other meetings that the county will not be able to stop the virus.
“I don’t think it’s going to do us any good,” he said Friday.
But Eilert and other commissioners said the county needs to take steps to slow down the virus that, many public health and education leaders say, could eventually cause staff shortages in schools and hospitals.
Debate about enforcement
A running argument among anti-mask commenters has been that masks must not be effective since the virus continues to spread. Commissioner Hanzlick addressed that.
“This to me is an opportunity to help our schools stay open, help our businesses stay open. To the idea that we’ve tried using masks, and it’s not working, all I have to do is look out into this third floor to see why it’s not working. I see many, many dozens of people out here not wearing a mask,” she said, referring to the gallery of people in the hallway waiting to speak.
“I think it’s really important that we put some teeth behind this.”
Later, Brown responded: “I have no interest in supporting or being a part of anything to do with Commissioner Hanzlick’s police state with a snitch line.”
He then took aim at LeMaster.
“There’s a school of thought that says that your recommendations are purely political, and there’s a bunch of people standing in that hallway that agree with that,” he said.
Most people who spoke at the comment period said they feared a shutdown or more limits on business as the holiday season nears. Several said they were small business owners who could not survive another shutdown because the Christmas season is so important to their survival.
“If I shut down again, there’s no way I could open back up,” said Desiree Minor, who owns a furniture store in Overland Park and was shut down from March through May.
However, a shutdown — the likees of which was seen this spring — was never part of the proposal, and even a clause that would have limited gatherings in bars, restaurants and retailers was removed before the comment period began.
Worsening pandemic conditions in county
The order comes as cases have sharply risen in the past two weeks. Larry Botts, chief medical officer of AdventHealth systems, told commissioners that case numbers have risen so dramatically that some hospitals are beginning to be unable to accept transfer patients and some have not had beds immediately available because of the influx of COVID-19 patients.
The beginning of flu season will worsen the situation, he said.
“If we don’t find a way to at least decrease the number of cases we will come to a point where we will be overwhelmed and not be able to take care of patients, both the Covid and the non Covid,” Botts said.
Shawnee Mission School Superintendent Michael Fulton also spoke Friday, telling the commission that continued community spread could affect the ability of schools to stay open, even though schools have not proved to be a major source of transmission, according to county health officails.
“We’re very worried about where these trend lines will take us in the weeks and months ahead. We’ll do our very best to keep school in session but the reality is decrease in staff and rise of COVID-19 cases are probably going to exacerbate what is already a difficult problem to solve,” Fulton said.
Spread in the community at large has affected staffing in schools and hospitals, officials said Friday. Fulton and Botts said infections caught in the community have caused shortages of staff. In hospitals. That can mean not enough people to open a bed.
In the schools, it may mean not enough teachers to cover when someone else is sick, Fulton said. Health safety precautions preclude putting two classes together when a teacher is out, he noted. Fulton had also questioned last week why the county health department is discouraging winter sports in schools, while its park and recreation district is offering winter league programs. However, that subject wasn’t discussed at the Friday meeting.
Also on Friday, public health officials from six Kansas City areas urged more caution as the holidays approach.
Many of their recommendations coincided with the order considered by Johnson County on Friday. But they also asked private citizens to avoid interactions with outsiders and work from home, wear masks everywhere but at home, avoid gatherings of over 10 people and self-quarantine for 14 days before attending a larger gathering.
The health officials also urged people to tell their contact if they get a positive test result. “Why? Because of the extremely high number of new cases, some local health departments must prioritize their contact tracing to focus on the most vulnerable people. That might not be you or your friends.”