In an effort to follow their own public health rules, Johnson County Commissioners voted to go back to online meetings through at least mid-January — a decision made, in part, to head off the mass gathering of public commenters at commission meetings.
The online format will have the effect of putting a temporary end to public comments that have, at times in recent weeks, resembled boisterous political rallies, with cheering and little apparent social distancing or mask wearing from commenters who show up. When the commission adopted enforcement measures for its health order on Nov. 19, one man led a small group of unmasked people into the commission chambers, chanting, “USA! USA!”
The county staff is working on a way that public comments can still be done on the online Zoom platform, though that’s not likely to be ready by next Thursday’s meeting, said Chairman Ed Eilert. Remote meetings would continue through January 14, and three new commissioners who won office in November’s general election could be sworn in online on Jan. 11, he said.
Eilert suggested the return to remote meetings as a way to stop the spread of the virus as case numbers have spiked in Johnson County in recent weeks. Public health officials have said family gatherings and travel for Thanksgiving may bring about more sickness in the next week or two, and that caseloads already have hospital staff stretched thin.
‘We are following our own rules’
The Johnson County commission is not the first public body to return to Zoom. Overland Park did so last week.
“What we heard (at the last meeting) was that no one was interested in wearing a mask and several said (they) are not going to wear a mask,” Eilert said, referring to public commenters. “When you have 25, 40, 50, 60 folks in the same area and no mask wearing that certainly increases the opportunity for community transmission.”
Commissioner Janee Hanzlick has complained in the past that hooting crowds outside the commission’s chambers are a deterrent to people who are more at risk of severe COVID-19 complications who may not feel comfortable coming to commission meetings and spending a couple of hours in an enclosed space at close quarters with people not wearing masks.
Putting everyone on a virtual format would help those people’s voices be heard, she said.
“For the past few months public comments have not been available to most people. They’re only available to people willing to run the gauntlet of the anti-maskers,” she said.
She added that going to online meetings also gives the commission a chance to lead by example after it recommended enforcement measures that could result in fines for those who continue to defy public health orders.
“I think we need to be leading by showing the example that we are following our own rules,” she said.
Gatherings in Johnson County are currently limited to 50 people. Some of the turnout at recent commission meetings has been close to that before the enforcement measures were enacted before Thanksgiving.
The district attorney’s office takes complaint calls on businesses not following the health rules, but has emphasized that education should come before fines. Assistant County Manager Joe Connor said the office has received fewer than 20 calls and that the county will seek cooperation with city jurisdictions before acting on them.
Concerns about public comments in remote meetings
It’s unclear whether the county would have to fine itself if crowds were to continue to gather outside the board room. County offices have signs advising masks and offer masks to visitors. Spaces are also marked off along the floor for social distancing, officials said. Only a few seats are inside the hearing room, so speakers wait outside around the stairwell, or in an overflow designated space.
Still, returning to Zoom-only meetings got an immediate objection from Commissioner Steve Klika on Thursday, who said it makes it seem the commission is “running away” from commenters.
“I really question our leadership here, I really do,” he said, to which Eilert responded tersely, “Thank you for the compliment.”
Commissioners Mike Brown and Michael Ashcraft said they would be open to remote meetings as long as they include public comments. However, public comments weren’t promised for the next December meeting. Both ultimately voted along with Klika against the idea.
After the vote, Klika immediately proposed that commissioners suspend their own salaries until meetings can be held in person again.
“That’s a great motion from someone who is leaving the commission,” Eilert countered, alluding to the fact that Klika did not seek reelection and will not return with the new commission in January.
Brown — who will also not be returning after he lost his race for reelection in November — said businesses have suffered because of the county’s health rules, coupled with rising property values that have meant more property tax collections.
“We’ve taken people’s life savings we’ve taken their life’s work and stifled and crushed it,” he said, adding that business owners should be free to make their own decisions about following public health recommendations.
In the end, Brown and Klika were the only commissioners to vote to suspend salaries during the remote meetings.
More testing will be available
Earlier in the meeting, Public Health Director Sanmi Areola, Ph.D, said there will soon be more opportunities to get tested in the county.
A “unified testing strategy” by the state health department will, when fully implemented in the next couple of weeks, add 3,500 more testing slots per day, beginning with a site at the Church of the Resurrection Friday, Dec. 4. That site will provide 1,000 tests per day and operates from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. A second site will open soon, he said.
Areola also shared new guidelines by the Centers for Disease Control that will in some cases shorten the amount of time spent in quarantine. The guidelines are for people who are close contacts of someone who contracted Covid-19. If a contact is tested on day five and continues to have no symptoms, he or she can emerge from quarantine after seven days have passed.
A close contact who is not tested but asymptomatic can end quarantine on the eleventh day. But all of those people are still expected to self-monitor for the full 14-day incubation period of the virus and get tested if they develop symptoms, Areola said.