Douglas County leaders approve new health order that maintains mask requirements, loosens other restrictions

photo by: Jackson Barton/Journal-World File Photo

The Douglas County Courthouse and downtown Lawrence are pictured in an aerial photo Saturday, July 13, 2019.

Douglas County leaders have approved a new health order that will keep the mask mandate in place, eliminate the mass-gathering limit and provide more flexibility about the occupancy rules for businesses and venues.

As part of its meeting Wednesday, the Douglas County Commission voted unanimously to approve the health order, agreeing with medical professionals who said that the precautions in the order were still needed. Douglas County Public Health Officer Dr. Thomas Marcellino said that especially with new variants of the virus, a continued mask order and other requirements were the least restrictive action to prevent the spread of COVID.

“What we don’t want to do is let off the throttle here too quickly,” Marcellino said. “We want to finish out our chance to prevent the spread, to get everybody fully vaccinated, to eradicate as much disease as we can, because with the emergence of these variants, we can’t pull back just yet.”

The new health order still requires people older than 5 years to wear masks in all indoor public spaces and outdoor spaces where 6 feet of distance can’t be maintained, with exceptions for people with certain medical conditions. The order removes the county’s mass-gathering limit of 50 people and keeps a 50% capacity reduction on indoor businesses and public venues, but allows businesses and venues to opt out of the capacity reduction if they provide written notice to the health department and post signage about their occupancy at the entrance. Even for those that opt out, social-distancing requirements will still be enforced inside buildings and outside of buildings in cases such as lines to get into a bar.

Deputy Public Health Officer Jen Schrimsher presented several studies, including a study from Kansas, to the commission that showed that mask mandates have reduced the number of cases and deaths from the virus compared to locations without mandates. Schrimsher also said that since the virus spreads mostly through respiratory droplets, it was important to maintain social distancing requirements in places such as restaurants and bars where people remove their masks to eat and drink.

The commission heard from residents both for and against the health order. Some cited reasons for their objections that were false, such as that masks have not been shown to help slow the spread of the virus or that people without symptoms should not have to wear masks because they can’t transmit the virus. Others expressed concerns that business owners sometimes didn’t respect medical or age exemptions to mask requirements, and others stated that they felt it was their individual right or freedom not to wear a mask in public spaces.

Two restaurant owners were supportive of the commission continuing the mask requirements and other requirements. Merchants Pub & Plate co-owner Emily Peterson cited the large number of people from outside the city and state who have been visiting the city in recent weeks for parent weekends at University of Kansas fraternities and sororities, and the two upcoming KU graduation ceremonies in May.

“That means every single weekend until the end of May, we have huge numbers of people traveling in from other locations, and certainly lots of activity downtown, people going in and out of businesses,” Peterson said. “And we certainly don’t know what the health of that traveling community is and how that impacts our local health.”

Commissioners said they appreciated the studies that were provided to back up the requirements in the health order and were comfortable approving it, especially as vaccinations continued to ramp up locally. Commission Vice Chair Shannon Reid said she appreciated those who shared concerns, but that the health order represented what was best for the community as a whole.

“At the same time, we have to look at a communitywide perspective and really think about what are our responsibilities to promoting public health and specifically reducing harm,” Reid said.

The health order will go into effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday and must be reevaluated by May 26. Initially the date was set for May 19, but commissioners agreed it was best to extend the date a week so that both KU graduation ceremonies would fall within the same requirements.


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