Top state lawmakers allow Kelly’s stay-at-home order to stand

photo by: Associated Press

Kansas House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., R-Olathe, holds up a map showing the spread of the novel coronavirus in the state by county, during a meeting of legislative leaders, Sunday, March 29, 2020, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. The counties in blue have had confirmed cases, with the most recent cases in the darkest shade. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

Updated at 7:25 p.m. Sunday

TOPEKA — Leaders of the Republican-controlled Kansas Legislature agreed Sunday that Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s statewide stay-at-home order is necessary to help check the spread of the new coronavirus, allowing it to take effect Monday as planned.

It helped Kelly’s case that the exceptions in her order for “essential” outside-the-home activities include religious worship and buying, selling and manufacturing guns and ammunition.

“You always want to balance your safety with rights,” said House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., a Republican from Olathe in Johnson County, which has more than 100 confirmed cases. “We’re continually trying to thread a needle.”

State health officials said Sunday that Kansas has 319 cases in 35 of the state’s 105 counties, with the number growing from Saturday by 58, or 22%. State and local officials have reported seven COVID-19-related deaths, with the latest a man in his 90s, according to The Kansas City Star.

The top seven legislative leaders, five of them Republicans, had the power to revoke Kelly’s order but made no move to do so during a half-hour teleconference meeting. They convened a day after the governor issued her order for the state’s 2.9 million residents, and it will remain in force at least until April 19.

Nearly two dozen other states have stay-at-home orders in place, and Kelly waited until at least 25 counties issued their own orders, including the state’s most populous ones. Those orders cover more than 2.1 million people, or 73% of the state’s residents. Hers would be in force until April 19.

Lawmakers gave their leaders the power to overturn Kelly’s coronavirus orders in a resolution extending a state of emergency Kelly declared on March 12 until at least May 1 instead of allowing it to expire Thursday.

Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican and U.S. Senate candidate who frequently criticizes Kelly, said Saturday that she was worried about a “one size fits all” approach. But none of the leaders criticized the stay-at-home order during Sunday’s meeting.

And afterward, Wagle said in a statement: “We are in this fight together.”

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

As it has elsewhere, the number of confirmed cases in Kansas has doubled roughly every three days. Kelly said Saturday that Kansas could have as many as 900 coronavirus cases by the end of this week.

Maj. Gen. Lee Tafanelli, the state’s emergency management director, told the legislative leaders that the stay-at-home order is “the best thing we can do.”

State law gives the governor broad authority to deal with emergencies but allows the Legislature to revoke emergency declarations, though there’s not been a case in recent memory of them seeking to do so. Some GOP conservatives were upset with Kelly’s order on March 17 that closed the state’s K-12 schools for the rest of the semester.

President Donald Trump has said he wants to reopen the U.S. economy by Easter, and in Kansas, some GOP lawmakers worry about destroying small businesses.

They’ve also said they want to prevent abuses of power in an emergency that could last weeks. Some Americans have said state and federal governments are trampling on freedoms central to American life in the name of protecting public health.

Kelly’s relationship with top Republicans has often been strained since she took office in January 2019. Democrats have said her GOP predecessors didn’t face the same pushback when confronting disasters.

“I’m glad they didn’t do anything crazy, but I was certainly concerned about it,” said House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, a Wichita Democrat. “We shouldn’t have to go through that.”

Ryckman said requiring a review of Kelly’s orders wasn’t about partisan politics but keeping in place the normal checks and balances in state government.

In response to questions, Clay Britton, the governor’s chief counsel, noted the exceptions allowing religious worship and gun sales. Others exceptions allow buying food and getting medical care.

Dr. Beth Oller, a family-practice physician in Stockton in northwest Kansas, said the state needed to prevent mixed messages about the new virus. She’s been urging fellow residents of Rooks County to stay at home, and the county issued a shelter-in-place order for its 5,000 residents that took effect Saturday, without a confirmed coronavirus case.

Oller said it’s almost certain that more people have the coronavirus than the state has reported because of limited testing.

“The only way that you flatten the curve effectively is by doing something before it gets bad,” she said.

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