Gov. Laura Kelly said Monday that she is considering recommending that Kansas counties shut down bars again and limit public gatherings to 15 people in hopes of reversing a resurgence in reported coronavirus cases that is making the state’s previous work to check it “for naught.”
Kelly said she will push next week to close bars and lower the limit on gatherings from 45 people if the state doesn’t get the spread of the novel coronavirus under better control.
The Democratic governor can issue orders calling for statewide restrictions, but the state’s 105 counties are allowed to opt-out of her directives under a law enacted last month as a compromise between her and the Republican-controlled Legislature. Top GOP lawmakers have been critical of Kelly’s handling of the pandemic, arguing that it’s inappropriate for her to impose “one size fits all” measures on a state where the number of infections per 1,000 residents varies widely.
Kelly said during a Statehouse news conference that she doesn’t want to “go backward” on reopening the state’s economy after she locked it down for five weeks, from late March until early June. But she said, “We can and we must do better.”
“We have seen, both in Kansas and then certainly across the country, that people have really gotten a little bit apathetic about maintaining social distance and avoiding mass gatherings,” Kelly said.
The state Department of Health and Environment reported Monday that Kansas had an additional 1,063 coronavirus cases since Friday, up 4.2% to 26,172.
For the seven days ending Monday, the state reported an average of 405 new cases a day, lower than the pandemic’s peak of 479 a day for the seven days ending July 17. But until late June, the previous peak had been 251 for the seven days ending May 8, about 62% lower than Monday’s figure.
Kansas also reported another nine COVID-19-related deaths since Friday, increasing the total by 2.8% to 335. The state had 28 new reported deaths during the seven days ending Monday, an average of 4.0 a day for a new high mark since June 1.
Kelly lifted statewide restrictions on businesses and public gatherings on May 26 in favor of giving counties guidance after weeks of criticism from GOP lawmakers that she was moving too slowly to reopen the coronavirus-battered economy. She issued an order July 2 calling for people to wear masks in public and at their workplaces, but many counties opted out.
She also sought to delay the reopening of public and private K-12 schools for three weeks from mid-August until after Labor Day after she closed school buildings in mid-March for the rest of the last school year. But state law also required her to get the approval of the Republican-controlled State Board of Education, and its 5-5 vote last week killed her order and left reopening decisions to the state’s 286 local school boards.
“I think about all of the hard work that Kansans did beginning in March, and it seems like a lot of that work was for naught,” Kelly said Monday.
Meanwhile, a local health official on Monday ordered public schools in the Kansas City, Kansas, area not to reopen their buildings until after Labor Day.
Dr. Allen Greiner, Wyandotte County’s chief medical officer, said he issued the order to give the county’s four school districts more time to prepare for a safe reopening of their buildings. The order allows the districts to offer online classes.
Wichita, the district with the most students in Kansas, has delayed the reopening of fall classes until after Labor Day, as have two other large districts, Blue Valley and Shawnee Mission in Johnson County, south of Wyandotte County.
The Wyandotte County districts have nearly 34,000 students, and Greiner’s decision means that in-person classes won’t start until after Labor Day for about 26% of the state’s 519,000 public school students.
Educators acknowledge that in-person instruction is generally better for students and online classes and that children benefit from interacting with each other.
But Dr. Beth Oller, a family physician in Stockton in northwest Kansas, said she didn’t see a downside to waiting to reopen schools until after Labor Day. Her home of Rooks County, with about 5,000 residents has seen its reported coronavirus cases almost double since July 1, from eight to 14. To the south, Ellis County has seen cases jump from 21 to 115, while to the north, Phillips County, has gone from three to 41 cases because of a nursing-home outbreak.
Oller said she worries that the state will see cases increase again when schools reopen, just as it did when businesses reopened.
“It hasn’t worked out real well,” said Oller, the mother of four young children. “I don’t know why people think this is going to be different.“