Following tense debate, JoCo Commission votes to put enforcement teeth to county COVID-19 order

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Over loud objections from a gallery of mostly anti-mask onlookers, the Johnson County Commission Thursday voted to put the power of enforcement behind health department restrictions on businesses regarding gathering size, closing times and other public health measures during the worsening COVID-19 pandemic.

The 4-3 vote brings the county’s order — approved last week — under the health department’s code enforcement division. It provides for up to a $500 fine for noncompliance. That is directed entirely at businesses and would not apply to private gatherings in homes.

Commission Chairman Ed Eilert said the county will still emphasize public education as it has since the beginning of the pandemic. For example, code enforcement employees would first chat with business owners about a potential violation and then give them a deadline to make changes after sending a written notice. Business owners who continue to defy the order could then be fined.

If the business owner then refuses to pay, that fine could be adjudicated in county codes court. The matter is considered civil, not criminal.

Mask enforcement handled separately by DA’s office

There was also some confusion over whether masks would be included in the enforcement, since Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly issued a new version of a statewide mask mandate Wednesday.

Cindy Dunham, the board’s legal counsel, said the individual mask enforcement is handled at the state level through the county district attorney. If the district attorney chooses to file a complaint, that fine could be up to $2,500, although no complaints have been filed, Eilert said.

Commissioners voted along familiar lines Thursday, with Eilert and Commissioners Jim Allen, Becky Fast and Janeé Hanzlick in favor and Commissioners Steve Klika, Mike Brown and Michael Ashcraft voting against.

Allen said the threat to hospitals and exponentially increasing cases carried the most weight in his decision to support it.

Janeé Hanzlick. File photo.

Hanzlick quoted this week’s White House Task Force report, which said Kansas has “exponential and unyielding spread” of new COVID-19 cases and that incidence rates in the state are twice the national average. That task force has recommended improved enforcement and reduced crowd capacity at public places, Hanzlick said, and put dozens of counties — including Johnson — in its “red zone.”

Klika said government has crossed a line in its requirements and expressed concerns about people who have disabilities and are exempt from wearing masks. He referred to his own hearing impairment, saying people with disabilities are suffering from discrimination due to the masks.

“All these mandates do is split people apart,” he said.

Opponents again shows up in force

Commissioner Brown predicted the order and its enforcement will bring about confrontation and chaos in the days ahead.

“I’m not sure who it is we’re still trying to educate here,” he said.

The vote came after about two hours of comments from 36 people who signed up to speak, most of them opposed to enforcing the health order. The crowd could be heard loudly hooting and cheering as the public comments continued. At one point, they were asked not to pound on the window to the hearing room.

Many objected to rules requiring masks, repeatedly referencing the Founding Fathers and saying the county government would exceed its constitutional authority with the restrictions. There were comparisons to Nazi Germany and George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984.” When the public comment period ended, someone outside the hearing room invoked the name of President Donald Trump and one man loudly shouted “USA, USA!,” briefly interrupting the meeting.

More than one opponent quoted statistics that say more than 99% of healthy adults under 70 survive bouts with COVID-19, using this as evidence to suggest restrictions like the ones approved by the county are an overreaction. COVID-19 has proven to be much deadlier for older people and those with preexisting health conditions, like diabetes and obesity, but health experts say younger, healthier people can still spread the disease, contributing to overall transmission rates, endangering the sick and elderly and putting a strain on the local health care system.

In Johnson County, 87% of the county’s 266 deaths from COVID-19 have been among people 70 and older, though they make up just 9% of overall infections.

Opponents to public health orders have been gathering at county commission meetings weekly for months. File photo.

Still, some commenters Thursday, like Daniel Youngblood, pledged not go along with the new enforcement measures.

“You may be deaf to this, but we will not comply,” he told the commission, echoing other speakers who vowed not to follow the county’s health directives, even with enforcement measures in place.

Shawna Childers suggested a class-action lawsuit against the county: “You guys have crossed a line. We are not going to take this.”

Others leveled debunked claims that masks don’t work. Meanwhile hospital officials have begged residents to wear masks and practice social distancing, saying past resistance and the continued spread of misinformation in the community has contributed in an explosion of news cases over the past month that now threatens to overwhelm Kansas City-area hospitals.

At the KU Health Systems daily health briefing Thursday, chief medical officer Steve Stites said there’s encouraging news on a vaccine, but even so the population will need to work together to protect each other. He said he knows masks, distancing and hygiene work because health care workers are not catching the disease from hospital patients.

Details about the full order approved last week can be found here.