Lawrence City Commission approves ordinance to make violating pandemic health orders a municipal offense
City leaders have voted to approve an ordinance that gives Lawrence police more power to enforce local health orders put in place to deter the spread of COVID-19.
As part of a special meeting Thursday, the Lawrence City Commission voted 4-1, with Mayor Jennifer Ananda opposing, to approve an ordinance that makes endangering the public health, safety, or welfare against municipal code. The ordinance uses existing state public nuisance law to give Lawrence police the authority to issue up to a $500 ticket to those who violate health orders, which include limits on public gatherings.
The commission called the special meeting to consider the ordinance in the wake of multiple large house parties that occurred near the University of Kansas campus over the weekend, as well as concerns from residents that such gatherings had been happening regularly for several weeks without anything being done. Commissioner Stuart Boley said that the ordinance was a way to protect the broader community from the spread of the virus, which has surged in recent weeks.
“There are vulnerable people in our community that are relying on us to do what we can to ensure their safety during this pandemic, and that’s what we need to do,” Boley said.
After the University of Kansas gave students the option of attending classes in person, about 20,000 students returned to Lawrence last month. Multiple local officials said the approach to enforcing local health orders had been voluntary compliance, and that noncompliance had not been an issue before students returned to the city. There has been confusion in recent days regarding exactly how local police could enforce health orders under state law.
The new city ordinance makes the public nuisance of “knowingly causing or permitting a condition to exist which injures or endangers the public health, safety, or welfare” a municipal offense. City Attorney Toni Wheeler told the commission the ordinance closely mirrors existing Kansas law, specifically K.S.A. 21-6204, regarding public nuisance. In response to questions, Wheeler explained that local police can enforce health orders under that law, but until the local ordinance goes into affect, they cannot issue citations and are instead limited to either arresting people or gathering information to file a complaint with the district attorney. She also said that complaint must currently be handled in district court and it would take several months before the case were set for a hearing.
The commission received emails from various residents, as well as some public comments during the meeting, representing a mix of positions. Some said they strongly supported the city creating an ordinance to enforce the health orders while others said such violations shouldn’t be criminalized, or that the university should be accountable and should punish students for violating its code of conduct. Downtown Lawrence Executive Director Sally Zogry told the commission that businesses are working under many restrictions and have invested time and money to adhere to health orders, and that everyone needed to be held to those standards.
“I don’t know if this ordinance is the answer, or the be-all, end-all, but we have to have some way that we are enforcing behavioral standards across the community,” Zogry said.
Vice Mayor Brad Finkeldei said when the topic was first discussed at the commission’s meeting Tuesday, he’d had some concerns about potentially creating a new law tied specifically to local health orders. However, he said he was comfortable with the ordinance because it mirrored state law. He said having a municipal offense that can be enforced with a ticket creates less confrontation.
“I like this approach because we are not creating a new crime here, the crime is under state law,” Finkeldei said. “What we’re actually doing is allowing a way for someone to be ticketed and not arrested for this crime.”
Though she voted against the ordinance, Ananda said she wanted to make it clear that she saw the recent house parties as a disregard for public health and the sacrifices many Lawrence residents have been making. However, she said she did not think a city ordinance was the right approach. Given recent conversations about reallocating some duties away from police to social services organizations, Ananda said it was not in keeping with that effort to create new public health duties for police. Instead, she said KU should respond more rapidly and aggressively to violations.
With the passage of the city ordinance, Wheeler said violations can be handled in municipal court and should be processed more quickly. Such a violation is a class C misdemeanor, which would be punishable by a fine not to exceed $500, incarceration not to exceed 30 days, or both, according to the ordinance.
Local officials said the goal isn’t to issue a lot of tickets for violations, but to get people to comply with health orders, with a particular focus on gathering limits due to recent house parties. Currently, health orders prohibit gatherings of 45 or more people where individuals in one location are unable to maintain six feet of distance with only infrequent or incidental moments of closer proximity. Lawrence police will also be working with the KU Public Safety Office, so if the hosts of a gathering that violates health order are students, they will also be subject to discipline by the university.
Interim Police Chief Anthony Brixius said police will first ask a gathering violating the health order to immediately disperse, and only if people do not comply or later regroup in the same area will a ticket be issued to the party hosts.
“We are going to be judicious about how we do this,” Brixius said. “We are going to be fair and reasonable and give every opportunity for compliance, and it’s not our intent to go around handing out citations or arresting people. But we do have that element if we need to make sure that the community is safe.”
Some commissioners said they were concerned with the ordinance’s broad definition of a public nuisance, and in an effort to still mirror state statute and indicate that intent is only to use the ordinance to enforce health orders related the COVID-19, the commission voted to add a sunset clause to the ordinance that will cause it to automatically expire on Dec. 31, 2021. Wheeler said the ordinance will go into effect as soon as it is published in the Lawrence Journal-World, which is scheduled to occur on Saturday.