Kansas counties, state’s largest school district add new COVID-19 rules

photo by: John Hanna/Associated Press

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly discusses the coronavirus pandemic as her health secretary, Dr. Lee Norman, watches behind her at a news conference, Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020, at the Statehouse in Topeka.

Topeka — Kansas’ largest public school district has scrapped plans to allow its middle and high school students to attend some in-person classes, and three counties have imposed new restrictions inspired by the coronavirus pandemic.

The moves by local officials come as the state works to expand its overall testing capacity under a “unified” statewide strategy announced by Gov. Laura Kelly in late September. The strategy calls for regular testing of at-risk populations, including first responders, prison inmates, nursing home residents and K-12 students and staff, as well as more aggressive testing in virus hotspots. The state plans to spend at least $53 million in federal coronavirus relief funds on contracts with private laboratories.

But Kelly said Tuesday during a Statehouse news conference: “It won’t work if people are not abiding by the other safety protocols, particularly wearing masks and avoiding large gatherings.”

Kansas is seeing its largest numbers of new confirmed and probable coronavirus cases since the pandemic reached the state in early March. The state health department is now reporting more than 103,000 cases and 1,181 deaths, and it averaged 2,047 new cases a day for the seven days ending Monday. Public health officials say people aren’t wearing masks enough and are letting their guard down at gatherings, including family events such as birthday parties and baby showers.

In Wichita, the state’s largest city, the local school board decided Monday that middle and high school students will continue to take classes remotely until the end of the current semester. The district had planned to allow them to have in-person classes twice a week, starting this week.

Elementary school students will continue with the in-person or remote learning that they selected at enrollment, said spokeswoman Susan Arensman.

The Wichita district, with about 47,000 students, had 229 staff members and 154 students test positive for COVID-19 from Aug. 1 through Friday, according to its website. The district also posted that it has 567 employees in active quarantines.

In Sedgwick County, the health officer issued an order limiting mass gatherings to 100 people or 50% of a venue’s capacity, aiming it at businesses such as bars, restaurants and health clubs. The county commission let it stand.

In neighboring Harvey County, the all-Republican county commission on Tuesday limited gatherings to 45 people. The county saw its cases rise 83% in two weeks, from 572 on Oct. 26 to 1,048 on Monday, according to state health department data.

Both Sedgwick and Harvey counties have mask mandates, but Harvey County Commission Chairman Randy Hague said some people have been ignoring the rule. He said when he goes to a store, about a third of the people inside are not wearing a mask.

“There are a lot of nonbelievers, there are a lot of anti-maskers, and, you know, until you change their beliefs in all this, it is going to be hard to make a big swing in the numbers,” Hague said.

Kelly, a Democrat, issued an order requiring people statewide to wear masks in public, but a state law allowed Kansas’ 105 counties to opt out, and most did.

In Jefferson County in northeast Kansas, the all-GOP county commission approved a mask mandate Monday after having opted out of Kelly’s mandate in July. In carrying the state in this year’s election, President Donald Trump won Harvey, Jefferson and Sedgwick counties by comfortable margins.

Crystal VanHoutan, director of Jefferson County’s health department, said the county has seen a spike in active cases since Halloween. The total number rose to 398 by Monday, according to state health department data.

“The message that I want people to understand is this is not over, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” she said. “We need to continue to stay vigilant.”

But Magee Dailey, manager at a farm supply store in the Jefferson County seat of Oskaloosa, said she’s worried about losing customers if she enforces the mask mandate. A sign at the front door has told customers that the store doesn’t require people to wear masks unless they are sick.

“Most of the time, our customers will tell us that they come to us because we don’t require a mask,” Dailey said.

Dailey described herself as “anti-mask” and said she avoids businesses requiring them, though she would “cooperate if needed.”

“I totally understand the ones who do need to wear masks if they have underlying conditions or anything like that, but it is so hard to breathe in those masks,” she said. “I could not work daily if I had to wear one all day long.”

But Kelly said she expects more counties to impose new restrictions.

“They’re losing people right and left,” she said.


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