Johnson County extends pandemic health order through March 31

Johnson County mask order

Johnson County has extended it's pandemic order through March 31. The order is limited to businesses and organizations. Individuals and private homes are exempted. Above, Shawnee resident Kyndra wears a face mask while grocery shopping. File photo.

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The coronavirus health order that imposes spacing, crowd and some hours restrictions on Johnson County businesses will stand for another two months, the county commission has decided. The action does not impact a state-mandated mask requirement that remains in effect.

The Johnson County Board of County Commissioners voted 5-2 Thursday to extend the county’s most recent health order to March 31.

No changes were made to the previous order that was approved in November, which mainly addresses social distancing practices and gathering sizes.

The order is limited to businesses and organizations. Individuals and private homes are exempted.

Worries about new COVID-19 variants

Assistant County Manager Joe Connor said the county has received 24 complaints of businesses allegedly not following pandemic orders since November. File photo.

County Public Health Officer Dr. Joseph LeMaster said that while the order is “not perfect” restrictions should be left in place while health officials assess new, more transmissible variants that have popped up in the United Kingdom and are beginning to surface in the U.S., including potentially in Kansas.

“While education is an important piece of what we’re doing, the actual having the mandate seems to have had an additional impact,” he said.

The limitations on businesses are enforced by the county codes department in the unincorporated area and in cities that have opted in to enforcing the order.

Twelve cities in Johnson County have agreed to let the county enforce the restrictions. Seven others either have not voted on it or have rejected the idea.

Rules on wearing masks in public come from a statewide emergency declaration and are enforced through the county district attorney’s office.

County officials have emphasized since November that their main objective is to educate businesses when complaints come in, reserving fines only for those who continue to flout the rules. Also, businesses can avoid running afoul of crowd size limits by filing a safety plan with the county.

Assistant County Manager Joe Connor said 24 complaints have been filed since November.

‘Is this theater we’re doing?’

Commissioners Michael Ashcraft and Charlotte O’Hara voted against today’s extension, with Commissioners Shirley Allenbrand, Janee Hanzlick, Becky Fast and Jeff Meyers and Chairman Ed Eilert voting in favor.

O’Hara pointed out that Olathe, which represents around 23% of the county’s population, has not opted into the county enforcement of the health order, and wondered if education alone is already doing its job.

“So is this theater that we’re doing?” she said. “What are we doing? We’re intruding into individuals rights, we’re intruding into the functions of business and for what purpose?”

She added that the county should be putting out more information on diet, exercise and sleep and their effects on coronaviruses.

Allenbrand said her constituents have been emailing in favor of extending the order.

“There are a lot of people who’ve been huddling down and keeping their mask on and have not been vaccinated yet and they’re just terrified,” she said.

Commissioner Jeff Meyers said he believes health officials who have said masks work and called extending the order “common sense.”

Absent from today’s debate were the lengthy and emotional public comments of past meetings.

In November, for instance, a crowd showed up to speak about the impact of the restrictions and, at one point, some protesters entered the commission’s chamber chanting, temporarily putting a stop to the meeting.

However the commissioners have been meeting remotely since November. Public comments were allowed by audio connection Thursday. Three people spoke against the extension this morning for two minutes apiece.