A look at what’s allowed and what’s not under Douglas County’s stay-at-home order

photo by: Jackson Barton/Journal-World File Photo

The Douglas County Courthouse and downtown Lawrence are pictured in an aerial photo Saturday, July 13, 2019.

Story updated at 8:54 p.m. Monday

I have heard from several of you about questions related to the stay-at-home order issued by Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health that takes effect Tuesday. I probably don’t have answers to all your questions, but here is a look at a few.


• What will close?

The list of businesses that can stay open as “essential businesses” is broad. Some of you have said it would be easier to list what can’t stay open. The health department hasn’t exactly done that yet, but we’ve been asking some more specific questions, and the department does provide more guidance on its frequently asked questions page. Businesses that will close include the following: dine-in restaurants (though take-out and delivery are permitted), bars and nightclubs, entertainment venues, and gyms and fitness studios, as well as barber shops, salons and tattoo parlors.

I’m pretty sure this list isn’t all inclusive, but it is what’s posted on the health department’s website currently. I’m guessing places like massage offices, bowling alleys, museums and a whole host of others are required to be closed, as well.

At a Monday press conference, Dan Partridge, director of Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health, said his agency had received a lot of questions about how to interpret the order. He said his staff was working to create some more concrete advice on how people should think through whether they have an essential reason to leave their homes.

“The real ask is stay at home and honor the spirit of that law rather than (ask) ‘Am I in or am I out?'” Partridge said of interpreting the exemptions in the order. “Regardless of whether you are in or out, if you don’t need to be out, stay at home.”

Another way Partridge said it at Monday’s briefing: “It is probably safe to assume that if you are wondering whether you are included (in the list of exemptions), you probably aren’t exempt,” he said.

Later Monday, the health department did post additional information aimed at giving firms guidance on whether they are deemed essential businesses that can remain open. The advice included businesses considering all the various parts of their operations.

“If you are a business that has multiple uses or roles, for example, a convenience store, and if less than 20% of your business is an essential service, then you should consider yourself a not essential business,” the department stated.

• If a business is open, what precautions must they take?

There are a few things here. Food businesses need to end self-service operations. For instance, the doughnut cases at convenience stores shouldn’t be operating. The order says there should be no touching of unpacked bakery goods. The order also states that businesses need to be diligent making sure people stay at least 6 feet apart. That means businesses that have lines form should put tape on the floor to show the proper 6-foot spacing. Where that isn’t feasible, signage is expected. In addition, businesses are expected to have hand sanitizer and soap readily available for both employees and customers.

• What about special hours for vulnerable populations?

Some businesses have started setting aside certain hours for the elderly and other vulnerable populations. Other businesses, though, have been unsure whether that is the wise public health strategy. The health department is recommending the practice at this point. It lists “implementing separate business hours for elderly and vulnerable customers” as one of the protective measures essential businesses should consider taking.

• Are call centers essential businesses under the order?

Some of the city’s largest private employers are call centers. I know we’ve certainly received questions from employees at some centers about whether they should remain open, given that working conditions can be crowded at some of the facilities. I did not get a direct answer from the health department on whether call centers are essential businesses. It probably depends on the nature of the call center work. But the health department’s spokesman did note that the social distance practices would apply to a call center. So, if call centers have people working less than 6 feet apart, that seemingly would be in violation of the order. I think the bigger question is whether the health department has the capacity to inspect businesses where employees are expressing concern that such conditions aren’t being met. Based on my conversations with the health department, that remains to be seen.

At Monday’s press conference, Partridge said that employees who are concerned about working conditions can call the health department, and the agency will attempt to do problem solving. However, he also suggested that employees first bring their concerns to the business itself.

• What about enforcement of the ordinance? Will police officers be stopping me to ask why I’m out?

At the moment, no. This seems to be more of an honor code right now, although in other places around the world, you’ve seen these stay-at-home orders become more strictly enforced if the population doesn’t seem to be following them closely. But at the moment, here’s what the health department has said about enforcement: “It is not our intent at this time for people to be cited by law enforcement as they move around the county. We want to assume people’s good intention that they will follow the order and will be out of their homes for permitted reasons. We do encourage people to stay at home unless they need to perform an essential service or have a job with an an essential service or business that cannot be done from home. We encourage everyone who can to work from home and encourage businesses to allow for that as much as possible.”

At Monday’s press conference, Partridge clarified that state law does allow for a fine ranging from $25 to $100 for people who violate the order. The county sheriff has ultimate enforcement authority on the matter.

Douglas County Administrator Sarah Plinsky stopped short of saying the sheriff’s department would start citing people in the near future. She said the county is stressing the importance of voluntary compliance.

• What about social gatherings? If it is fewer than 10 people, are they still OK?

The department is saying people should not gather for reasons that are nonessential. It specifically mentions play dates for children should not be arranged, and you shouldn’t invite your friends over for supper, for example.

• Are liquor stores still open?

They can remain open under the order.

• How about veterinary offices?

Yes, as well as businesses that sell pet food and other supplies.

• What about mental health service providers?

Yes, they are part of the health care system and can remain open both for remote treatment and in-person visits.

• Can schools allow students back into the buildings to retrieve items that were left behind when classes unexpectedly ended?

Yes, but the schools can control that access. The schools create those plans and are expected to follow the social-distancing guidelines.

• People can leave their homes for an “essential activity,” but how is that defined?

This is a long answer, but here is a good-faith effort at summarizing the type of essential activities the order allows:

• Things related to your health or safety, or the health or safety of your pets. That includes doctor’s visits, purchasing medications and other such tasks.

• Trips to get essential items for your house. That includes food, sanitation products and items that you need to work from home.

• Getting fresh air. You can walk, bike, jog and do other outdoor activities. But, you are expected to maintain at least 6 feet of separation from others, even when outside. Two people jogging side by side on the sidewalk should not occur. Also, don’t monkey around on the monkey bars. If you go to a park, keep everybody off the playground equipment.

• Going to work, if your business is deemed an essential business. The order has not stopped people from reporting to their offices, but the health department is encouraging employers to find ways for as many people as possible to work from home.

• To care for another family member or pet in another household. Again, practice social distancing, when possible.

• To go to court or take care of other legal or administrative orders. Courts are greatly curtailed right now, but if you have an order that says you need to show up, that is allowable travel. So is a trip to your attorney’s office.

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