Lawrence-Douglas County health officials have dealt with dozens of businesses out of compliance with governor’s orders

Area law enforcement: Community still largely complying with order

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 4:35 p.m. Wednesday:

Thursday will mark 30 days since the local stay-at-home order went into effect, and Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health officials have called about 25 nonessential businesses that were still in operation.

In response to inquiries from the public, the department has also called 29 essential businesses that were not practicing proper social distancing, department spokesman George Diepenbrock said via email Wednesday. Department staff provides those businesses education and guidance, he said.

Douglas County’s order for residents to stay home except for essential needs went into effect on March 24. Gov. Laura Kelly’s statewide order, which went into effect March 30, superseded it. Kelly’s order spelled out the Kansas Essential Function Framework, KEFF, or functions that must remain operational during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It appears pet-grooming businesses have been the most common (inquiry) about operating as a non-essential business, but we recognize there also was some confusion about that initially on the state’s interpretation, which it later clarified that only the (businesses) supplying animal food and products were deemed essential,” he said.

About 100 businesses have called the department seeking guidance on whether they should be open, Diepenbrock said.

“It has been a process during an unusual time, and we appreciate so many business owners working with us to follow these directives under the goal that as many people as possible need to stay home to keep the coronavirus from spreading in our community,” he said.

Law enforcement: Community largely compliant

Despite breaking up a few basketball games and house parties, Lawrence police have not issued citations or made arrests of anyone refusing to comply, department spokesman Patrick Compton said via email Wednesday. The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office agrees that people have largely been complying voluntarily; however, the agency has filed one criminal report with the district attorney, Public Information Officer Jenn Hethcoat said via email Wednesday.

Compton said that officers have had to respond to only one business that was operating when it shouldn’t have been.

“It was brought to our attention, we made contact with the company, educated them on the Kansas Essential Functions Framework, and they voluntarily closed their doors,” Compton said.

Sheriff’s deputies have responded to “a small handful” of businesses that were not complying with the governor’s order, Hethcoat said, but she did not have a specific number. She said there has been one repeat offender, but she did not immediately respond to a follow-up email asking the nature of that business.

“The few times we have visited businesses we used the opportunity to educate first and encourage voluntary compliance,” Hethcoat said. “These are for the most part businesses that believe they fell under the definition of essential services.”

Compton said that LPD is in communication with Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health daily, and if the health department is unsuccessful with measures to notify businesses that they are not in compliance, LPD can help to enforce the executive order. Compton said the agencies have discussed some businesses, but the health department has not formally asked LPD to intervene.

Diepenbrock said the health department has been in contact with LPD “regarding a very small number of businesses at this point.”

Both law enforcement agencies said that the community has largely been voluntarily cooperating. However, they could still take action if necessary.

“Volunteer compliance following a warning has been our focus and it’s worked so far,” Compton said. “That doesn’t mean we’re taking official enforcement off the table. If we encounter individuals who refuse to comply, we will use those measures to enforce the order.”

“Official enforcement,” as the Journal-World has reported, could result in up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500. Breaking the governor’s executive order is a class A misdemeanor. The local Unified Command has said that “If there is a danger to the public, or flagrant or repeated violations of the order, law enforcement is prepared to enforce the order.”

Hethcoat said the sheriff’s department appreciates the community’s cooperation to protect public health.

“We encourage everyone to continue to stay home so the number of cases in Douglas County remains low and we continue to keep our medical facilities from becoming overwhelmed,” Hethcoat said.

Compton echoed the sentiment.

“We’re in better shape than many cities throughout the country, but that doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods,” he said. “Don’t go out unless you have to. Stay home. This will help us curb the effects of the virus and protect our most vulnerable citizens.”

According to Wednesday afternoon statistics from the health department, Douglas County has had 44 verified cases of COVID-19. Kelly’s stay-at-home order is currently set to remain in effect until May 3.

Cheryl Wright Kunard, assistant to the Douglas County district attorney, said via email that the DA’s office had received the report from the sheriff’s office and that it was under review. Further information about the report was not available Wednesday.

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Compton said officers have visited “a couple of churches” after getting calls that they were still holding in-person services. He said officers just wanted to see how they were navigating the situation and provide education to get ahead of any potential problems.

In the week prior to April 12, Easter Sunday, Kelly expanded one executive order to include religious services as gatherings that should be limited to 10 or fewer people. Two Kansas churches have filed a lawsuit to challenge that order, and that case is pending in the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas.

As of Wednesday, Judge John Broomes’ order granting a temporary restraining order to prevent enforcement of the restriction on religious gatherings for those two churches was still in effect. One of Kelly’s attorneys, Pedro Irigonegaray, filed a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction on Tuesday.

Online court records indicate that documents may be filed in the case through Saturday before the next hearing is set.

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