Douglas County health department prohibits large gatherings, orders 2-week closure of schools, rec centers, libraries

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.

Story updated at 7:04 p.m. Friday

Douglas County’s health department said Friday afternoon that it will be closing local public and private schools, indoor parks and recreation facilities and public libraries for two weeks in response to the spread of the new coronavirus.

Douglas County’s health officer is also prohibiting public gatherings of more than 250 people in Douglas County, the department said.

Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health announced the measure late Friday afternoon. Earlier in the afternoon, the health department released a statement to the Journal-World that schools would not be closed until confirmation of a positive case of COVID-19 in Douglas County.

As of Friday afternoon, the health department said there was still no confirmed case in Douglas County. The department reversed its decision following similar actions taken earlier in the day by health departments in Shawnee and Riley counties. Those counties also did not have confirmed cases, although concerns have been growing nationally about a slow rate of testing for the virus.

“The time to institute this social distancing is before we see the instance of community spread, and we are taking these measures to limit large crowds and seek to help stem the outbreak of COVID-19,” Health Department Director Dan Partridge said in a news release late Friday afternoon.

The state of Kansas on Friday identified a case of COVID-19 in a Butler County man, the sixth case in the state overall and the first to be discovered outside of the Kansas City area. Officials announced Thursday that a man in a Wyandotte County nursing home died as a result of the virus. The four other cases were reported in Johnson County.

The Douglas County health order takes effect immediately and will last until at least Sunday, March 29. Lawrence public schools were scheduled to return from spring break Monday, and earlier this week the University of Kansas extended its own spring break until March 23, with the intention to resume classes in an online-only setting.

Following the health department’s announcement, Lawrence Public Schools announced that all school activities, practices and events are also canceled until at least the end of the month. Employees should not report to work unless a supervisor directs them to, district spokeswoman Julie Boyle said in a message to staff and families.

The Lawrence school district also intends to apply for a waiver from the Kansas State Department of Education so that lost instructional time will not need to be made up, Boyle said. If the state approves the waiver, hourly employees would be paid as if school had been in session, per the original payroll schedule, Boyle said. Based on the conference call that the state conducted earlier this week, Lawrence administrators are optimistic that such waivers will be approved, and the district hopes to hear an answer to their request during the two-week closure period, Boyle told the Journal-World.

The district hopes to announce additional steps, such as working with community partners to provide food services, but those decisions have not yet been made, Boyle said.

In addition to closing the Lawrence Public Library, the City of Lawrence is also closing the Community Building, 115 W. 11th St.; the East Lawrence Recreation Center, 1245 E. 15th St.; Holcom Park Recreation Center, 2700 W. 27th St.; the Indoor Aquatic Center, 4706 Overland Drive; Prairie Park Nature Center, 2730 Harper St.; and Sports Pavilion Lawrence, 100 Rock Chalk Lane. Eagle Bend Golf Course will remain open, pending further direction from the health department.

The city is canceling all aquatic, nature and recreation classes, as well as adult and youth sports leagues and all indoor and outdoor sports team practices during the two-week period. The city had previously canceled its Special Populations and Lifelong Recreation programming. The Parks and Recreation department is currently working on plans to refund or prorate classes that are affected by the closures. The city said it is also in the process of communicating how the closures will affect Parks and Recreation staff, including seasonal and part-time employees.

The order from the health department will also affect public school districts in Eudora and Baldwin City, private schools in Lawrence such as Bishop Seabury Academy and Veritas Christian School, and public libraries and recreation centers elsewhere in the county.

Douglas County’s health officer, Dr. Thomas Marcellino, has the authority to isolate ill people, quarantine healthy people and cancel public events and gatherings. On Thursday, the health department canceled Lawrence’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade on his advice. Kansas’ education commissioner said Thursday that local health departments and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment have the authority to close schools.

“We are looking to restrict the amount of contact in this two-week window to allow for symptoms and the incubation period to pass from people who might be returning from spring break,” Marcellino said in the release.

The health department said it is also “strongly recommending” these actions in the community:

• Closure of daycare centers

• Limiting visitors to retirement communities and long-term care centers

• Avoiding unnecessary social gatherings and other gatherings such as sports practices, games and tournaments

• Maintaining a 6-foot distance from others, per the Centers for Disease Control’s social distancing standards

More coverage: Coronavirus (COVID-19)

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