Kansas ponders open churches, abortion limits in pandemics; bill would further restrict governor’s powers

Updated at 7:25 p.m. Monday

TOPEKA — Conservative Kansas legislators, still smarting over actions Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly took early in the coronavirus pandemic, pushed Monday to prevent the state from restricting religious gatherings or keeping abortion providers open during emergencies.

But Republicans are deeply split over how much to limit the power of state and local officials during future pandemics. Kelly kept a statewide stay-at-home order in place for five weeks last spring to check COVID-19’s spread. But the GOP-controlled Legislature later forced her to accept local control over mask mandates and the restriction of businesses and public gatherings to keep a state of emergency in place under a law that expires March 31.

Legislators are considering permanent changes in Kansas emergency management laws, and the state Senate passed, 27-12,a bill that would go further in restricting the power of the governor, the state health department’s director and local officials during public health emergencies. The House Judiciary Committee approved a narrower measure aimed at giving legislative leaders a bigger role in managing disasters.

Kelly criticized the Senate’s bill, saying that it would jeopardize the state’s ability to respond quickly and effectively.

“I won’t hesitate to veto any bill that slows or undermines my ability to respond to a crisis and save lives,” she said in a statement.

The final version of the bill is likely to be drafted by negotiators for the House and Senate later this month after their chambers approve their own legislation. Some GOP lawmakers have complained that rank-and-file legislators were largely bystanders for much of the time after COVID-19 first reached the state in March 2020, particularly early on.

“Our voices were silenced,” said Rep. Mark Samsel, a Wellsville Republican. “We were told what to do, and we weren’t allowed to do anything about it or have a voice at the table for two months that we’ll never get back.”

The Legislature’s debate over emergency management laws comes after weeks of criticism from Republican lawmakers that the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines has been too slow. The state health department reported Monday that almost 394,000 people had received at least one of two required doses of vaccines made by Pfizer or Moderna, or 13.5% of the state’s 2.9 million residents.

Kansas expects to receive 23,400 doses of Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot vaccine that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration cleared for use Saturday. The state health department said 584,000 doses of Pfizer or Moderna vaccines have been administered, or 72.5% of the 805,000 doses received.

Kansas saw an average of 370 new confirmed and probable COVID-19 cases a day during the seven days ending Monday, the lowest rolling seven-day average since early July 2020, according to health department data. The state added 639 cases since Friday, bringing its total for the pandemic to 294,302, or one in every 10 residents.

The state added another eight COVID-19 deaths since Friday, taking its toll to 4,743. The state averaged 14 additional deaths a day for the seven days ending Monday.

The ongoing decline in new cases has led some Republican lawmakers to argue that the state of emergency for the pandemic could be allowed to expire at the end of this month. Public health officials are worried about last month’s arrival in Kansas of a new, more contagious coronavirus variant first identified in the United Kingdom, and the state health department said eight new cases have been identified in the Wichita area, bringing the reported total in Kansas to 10.

The Senate’s emergency-management bill contains provisions that would prevent state and local officials from taking “any action” to limit religious gatherings during a public health emergency. It also would require officials to shut down abortion providers if other “business or commercial activity” is stopped.

Rep. Jesse Burris, a Mulvane Republican, attempted to add the same provisions to the House Judiciary Committee’s bill during a debate Monday, but GOP committee members split over it. His attempt failed on an 11-5 vote.

A cluster of coronavirus cases tied to religious gatherings prompted Kelly to attempt to limit indoor worship to 10 participants just before last Easter. She was forced to back off after two churches filed a federal lawsuit and a judge ruled in their favor.

Also in April, the Sedgwick County Commission and GOP lawmakers urged Kelly to prevent abortion providers from terminating pregnancies at a time when other health care providers were delaying or considering delays in elective procedures. The governor refused, declaring “reproductive health” an “essential need” during the statewide stay-at-home order.

“We put our stake in the ground and say, ‘No, we don’t believe abortion is essential,'” said Republican Rep. Stephen Owens, of Hesston.

But Rachel Sweet, a lobbyist for abortion provider Planned Parenthood Great Plains, called abortion “essential, time-sensitive health care.”

“It shouldn’t be treated like going to the gym or eating in a restaurant,” she said.


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