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Johnson County Commission Issues New COVID-19 Recommendations, But They Won't Have To Be Followed

Businesses across the county, including small shops in downtown Overland Park, are still being asked to maintain social distancing and to limit the gathering of crowds.
Sam Zeff
Businesses across the county, including small shops in downtown Overland Park, are still being asked to maintain social distancing and to limit the gathering of crowds.

The county commission narrowly voted to approve guidelines that call for limiting mass gatherings and maintaining social distancing in public.

The Johnson County Commission voted narrowly Thursday to recommend limits on mass gatherings and to maintain certain other coronavirus precautions but stopped short of issuing any mandates.

The commission’s action followed the decision by Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly earlier this week to lift her statewide emergency COVID-19 orders. Kelly’s decision made the state’s phased reopening plan just a guidance document, not a requirement.

Kelly left it up to counties to adopt their own regulations to attempt to mitigate the further spread of the coronavirus.

On Thursday, the county commission voted 4-3 to support the guidelines contained in Phase 3 of Kelly's reopening plan, starting Thursday and lasting through June 11.

Phase 3 calls for limiting mass gatherings to no more than 45 people; urges social distancing of at least six feet between people in restaurants and other establishments; urges companies to continue to allow employees to work from home to the extent possible; and recommends the use of masks in public.

Churches are specifically exempt from the 45-person mass gathering recommendation.

Commissioners Ed Eilert, Janee Hanzlick, Becky Fast and Jim Allen said these were not requirements but were expectations that they endorsed to limit the virus spread.

“I think it’s important that we re-emphasize it,” Eilert said.

Commissioners Mike Brown, Steve Klika and Michael Ashcraft opposed that move, saying it would just cause more confusion in a metro area where the rules seem to change every other day.

Brown said the county has done a good job of containing the virus and it’s time to let the economy open back up fully. He said Johnson County residents have acted responsibly and will continue to do so without government interference.

“I have full faith in the citizens of our county to manage themselves,” Brown said.

After Kelly lifted her order, Johnson County officials said they would leave it up to businesses and residents to voluntarily comply with precautions set out in the state’s plan.

That allows bars, businesses, entertainment venues and churches in Johnson County to reopen at full capacity if they so choose.

On Wednesday, more than 20 city council members from throughout Johnson County signed a letter urging the county to adopt explicit restrictions to help contain the COVID-19 spread.

The elected officials in various cities said the community is still in the midst of a health crisis and needs county leadership and good stewardship.

Hanzlick said these elected officials were looking for real direction from the county. Eilert said commissioner's decision Thursday provides the needed guidance.

As of Thursday morning, Johnson County had recorded a total of 771 positive coronavirus cases, including 133 in long-term care facilities. It has had 15,848 negative tests, for a 4.7 percent positive rate. It has recorded 62 deaths, including 48 in long-term care facilities.

Johnson County Director of Health and Environment Sanmi Areola told the county commission Thursday that in general the county has managed the virus well.

“I like where we are,” he said. “We are trending very well.”

However, he said the virus is still present in the community, and he expects the number of positive cases to go up as stay-home orders expire and more businesses reopen.

“We are doing well….but it doesn’t take much for that to turn,” he warned, urging people to continue to avoid large crowds, since he said those big gatherings are the “perfect environment” for the virus to proliferate.

Lynn Horsley is a freelance journalist in Kansas City. Follow her @LynnHorsley.

Lynn Horsley is a freelance writer in Kansas City. Follow her on Twitter @LynnHorsley.
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