Stay-at-home order leaves a big question unanswered: Says who?

Lawrence police: No citations issued yet

photo by: Kevin Anderson/Journal-World File Photo

The Lawrence-Douglas County health department's home at the Community Health Facility, 200 Maine St., is pictured in this file photo from July 2010.

Updated at 8:33 p.m. Monday:

In different times, it would have seemed absurd to call the police because a group of people were playing basketball at the park.

But amid the global coronavirus pandemic, orders to stay at home and guidance to stay at least 6 feet away from other people, concerned residents have occasionally made those calls, and law enforcement officers have responded.

However, it’s not entirely clear from local officials’ actions exactly who is in charge of enforcing Gov. Laura Kelly’s statewide stay-at-home order, or the Douglas County order that had preceded it.

Thus far, county authorities have largely been encouraging voluntary compliance with the stay-at-home order rather than publicly taking a firm stance on how it should be enforced.

The language of state law seems to put much of the onus for enforcement on local health departments, noting that the local health officer may order law enforcement agencies to assist in the execution or enforcement of orders demanding isolation or quarantine due to potentially life-threatening contagious disease.

That’s a bit different from what county leaders have said in the recent past. In a press briefing March 23, Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health Director Dan Partridge and Douglas County Administrator Sarah Plinsky said the sheriff’s office would be responsible for enforcement, and that the county was stressing voluntary compliance, the Journal-World has reported.

However, on Monday, Partridge said via email that the health department has been working closely with legal counsel and believes that interpretation of the law — that law enforcement is at the disposal of the public health agency — is accurate.

“We are working with our partners to identify and clarify roles and responsibilities,” Partridge said, when asked how the county health officer is enforcing the stay-at-home order. “Once that process has been completed we will issue a press release.”

Partridge said the department was grateful for “so many in our community who followed the spirit” of the stay-at-home order.

“Our greatest hope is that — together — we can help reduce the spread of coronavirus and lessen the toll it could take on our health care system,” he wrote.

Local law enforcement’s response

Kim Murphree, a spokeswoman for the Lawrence Police Department, said via email Monday that residents of Lawrence “have been, for the most part, adhering” to the governor’s stay-at-home order. She said LPD has had “infrequent contact with groups of citizens in violation of the order” and that those groups have voluntarily dispersed.

State law says that violation of such orders could be punishable by a fine of $25 to $100. No citations or arrests have been necessary, Murphree said, and the department is hopeful that residents will continue voluntarily observing the order.

It seems that Clinton Lake was becoming a popular sunset viewing point over the weekend, to the point of being problematic. Last month, Gov. Kelly issued an order barring gatherings of more than 10 people.

The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office has received a number of calls from residents concerned about groups on the south side of the dam, “a popular spot to gather and watch the sunset,” the agency said in a Facebook post on Saturday. This is legal, but it creates a problem with more than 10 people in one place at one time, according to the post.

“We saw this grow to 50-100 cars (Saturday) night with people out of their cars socializing,” the post said. “This is not safe under the Governor’s Order, or the traffic issues it causes. … We hope that everyone understands and will comply for the good of our community. We will be there to make sure this doesn’t continue.”

On Monday evening, however, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced in a Facebook post that the road across the dam, East 900 Road, would close at 9 a.m. on Tuesday until further notice. The post, released in conjunction with the sheriff’s office, cited “unsafe gatherings and parking conditions” as the reason for the closure.

The sheriff’s office’s post encouraged long walks in the park, hiking, fishing and canoeing for the physical and mental health benefits, but it also reiterated that people should keep a 6-foot distance between themselves and others from outside of their own households.

In his email Monday, Partridge noted that health department partners have added signs in public spaces and parks to “encourage safe play and practicing social distancing.”

“We have also worked with partners in the community to share messages in different formats as guidance on how people can comply safely with the order, including enjoying outdoor activity alone or only with members of your own household,” he said.

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