TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly’s top public health administrator acknowledged Friday that he would have preferred that she not lift statewide coronavirus restrictions on businesses and said local officials shouldn’t allow bars and nightclubs to reopen yet.
Dr. Lee Norman, state secretary of health and environment, said he advised Kelly on “public health principles” before she acted Tuesday to end statewide restrictions that would have kept bars and nightclubs from reopening and would have limited mass gatherings. Health officers in each of the state’s 105 counties now decide the rules, though they can refer to her plan for reopening the economy in phases for guidance.
The Democratic governor faced weeks of criticism from the Republican-controlled Legislature that she was moving too slowly to reopen the economy. Lawmakers passed a sweeping coronavirus bill that would have curbed her power to direct the state’s response. She vetoed it Tuesday before conceding to GOP leaders’ demand to allow counties to set their own rules for businesses.
Officials in the state’s two most populous counties, Johnson and Sedgwick counties, are using Kelly’s reopening guidelines as recommendations for businesses, without imposing enforceable rules. Wyandotte County, which is in the Kansas City area and has had the most COVID-19-related deaths in the state, said bars could reopen Friday if they limited indoor crowds to 15 people, enforced social distancing in their indoor and outdoor seating areas, and required staff to wear masks.
Norman called bars and nightclubs “inherently unsafe.” Asked whether he would have allowed them to reopen, he said, “Not at this juncture.”
“If the officials feel that it’s safe to reopen in their counties, we would still hope that people would vote with their feet,” Norman said during a Statehouse news conference. “This virus is still out there, I assure you.”
The state health department reported Friday that there were 382 new confirmed coronavirus cases in the state, raising the total since the outbreak started by 4.1%, to 9,719. The actual number of cases is thought to be higher because of a lack of testing, particularly early on, and because people can be infected without feeling ill.
The state health department also reported three new coronavirus-related deaths, raising the state’s total to 208, though Johns Hopkins University pegs it at 215.
Kelly had planned to keep some restrictions on businesses in place until at least June 23. But she’s issued multiple state-of-emergency declarations to tap the broad powers to manage emergencies, and state Attorney General Derek Schmidt and some fellow Republicans in the Legislature have challenged her authority to do that.
Kelly and Norman often have appeared as a team at news conferences on the pandemic, but she was not present Friday. She said Tuesday that she was compelled to lift statewide restrictions because “of the political games that have been played” over her pandemic response.
Kelly’s spokeswoman, Lauren Fitzgerald, said the governor finds the situation “not ideal,” but she added that county officials “have the flexibility to address the situation in their specific areas.”
Norman told reporters: “I’m not a politician and I don’t have a deep knowledge of legislative affairs.”
Asked whether his preference would have been to keep statewide restrictions in place, Norman answered, “Yes.”
In Wichita, the state’s largest city, Mayor Brandon Whipple is upset that the local county commission eased restrictions so that bars and nightclubs could reopen. Whipple said he wishes cities had more power to drive public health decisions, The Wichita Eagle reported.
Meanwhile. 130 youth baseball teams were preparing for a weekend tournament in Johnson County, The Kansas City Star reported. The sponsoring 3&2 Baseball club has changed how people will enter parks and where umpires will stand, and has added Plexiglas shields to all concession stands.
Norman said he does not have a problem with such tournaments if proper safeguards are followed. Kelly already had allowed youth sports games and practices to resume in time for Memorial Day.