TOPEKA, KS (AP) — Kansas counties had various reactions on Wednesday to Gov. Laura Kelly's decision to give them the authority to determine their own coronavirus restrictions, with some deciding to keep the current rules in place and others effectively allowing most activities to resume.
Dr. Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, urged counties to continue following Kelly's March plans for a phased reopening of the state's economy, saying it remains “the plan that will provide the safest way forward.”
Wyandotte, Douglas, Lyon and Coffey counties issued news releases saying they would continue to stick to the governor's plan, while Johnson, Reno, Sedgwick and Ford counties said restrictions on the size of gatherings and how businesses can operate would now be only guidelines.
Norman said he worked with county health officials to persuade county leaders to continue following the guidelines. He acknowledged situations are different in various counties, and said the next several weeks will be “uncharted, experimental waters.”
“It will show us how the reopening efforts have impacted the disease spread" he said. "Some counties in Kansas will fare well and some will fare very poorly. I don't like experimenting with people and I consider this next period of time to be an experiment in disease spread and how it takes further root in our citizenry."
The discussion came on a day when the state's coronavirus death toll reached 205 and the number of confirmed cases increased to 9,337, the health department said. That's an increase of 17 deaths and 119 cases since Monday.
Despite easing the restrictions, Johnson County health officials said in a news release that residents and businesses in the state's most populous county should continue to follow the safety guidance from Kelly's reopening plan.
"It is crucial that we all continue to practice physical distancing, wear barrier masks where we cannot maintain social distancing, practice good hygiene and make decisions that protect the health of the community,” said Dr. John LeMaster, the county's public health officer.
Ford County, which has the most confirmed COVID-19 cases with 1,628, also chose to drop the state restrictions but will allow cities within the county to impose tighter restrictions if they wish. A team of department heads will work together to deal with the virus' impact in the county.
“Now that we have clear direction from the county, we will be moving forward,” City Administrator J.D. Gilbert said. “We're happy to have local control back.”
Sedgwick County commissioners also voted not to impose any restrictions on county residents or businesses but recommended that residents follow recommendations for social distancing.
“I think it’s time to trust our citizens,” Commissioner Jim Howell said.
Wyandotte County health officials said they would impose Kelly's original restrictions until at least June 8, in part because the county has many residents who are at high risk of contracting COVID-19. The county reported 1,268 confirmed cases and 72 deaths as of Wednesday.
The restrictions include banning gatherings of more than 15 people and the closing of bars and nightclubs, most swimming pools, large entertainment venues, events such as fairs and festivals, and overnight summer camps.
“No matter what political battles rage at the state level, our fight has been and will continue to be against the novel coronavirus,” Mayor David Alvey said in a news release. “We will restrict, or relax, as much as is necessary to prevent overwhelming first responders and our health care system, while simultaneously working to re-open our community at the appropriate time.”
Officials in Douglas and Lyon counties said they will continue following the restrictions because the virus remains a danger to people's health and the current plan is working.