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TOPEKA — The state’s top health officer urged county officials Wednesday to follow Gov. Laura Kelly’s plan for gradual reopening of the economy — downsized from mandatory to advisory — to minimize opportunities for resurgence in spread of COVID-19.
Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said placing ownership of coronavirus decisions with the state’s 105 county commissions and health officers wasn’t without risk. He predicted some counties would fare well in terms of infection management, while others would fare poorly.
"The next several weeks we are entering uncharted experimental waters," Norman said. "I don’t like experimenting with people. And, I consider the next period of time to be an experiment in disease spread and how it takes further root in our citizenry."
The governor vetoed Tuesday a bill adopted last week by the 2020 Legislature limiting her authority to issue statewide directives, including provisions of her Ad Astra plan on resumption of economic life. She also granted power to issue restrictions on business and movement to county officials.
Norman said he had been told by some county health officers they would recommend county commissioners stick with Ad Astra. He also anticipated elected political officials in some counties would ignore advice of health officers. In addition, the KDHE secretary said, counties with low incidence of infection could take a different route from counties with infection hotspots.
Norman said the state’s leading infection centers were in densely populated areas, especially at nursing home facilities, and at meatpacking plants and state correctional facilities.
Kansas has recorded 205 fatalities linked to COVID-19, an increase of 17 from Friday. There have been 9,337 positive tests for the virus, up 119 from the previous update. The meatpacking industry concentrated in southwest Kansas accounts for 2,600 cases of infection and nine deaths in the state, he said.
Norman said KDHE, the Kansas adjutant general’s office and the governor staff had started development of planning for a potential second wave of COVID-19. Lax attention to social distancing and other public health advice make a surge in infection more likely, he said.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman and Senate President Susan Wagle joined the state’s leading business lobbying organization to denounce Wednesday the decision by the governor to veto a bill reshuffling authority to manage the COVID-19 response and recovery.
Both Republican legislators supported the bill adopted last week by the Legislature and were disappointed it was jettisoned by the Democratic governor.
GOP lawmakers resisted many of Kelly’s executive orders issued since mid-March, especially those applicable to business closures and church services. Republicans urged the governor to grant local government more influence in economic and health decisions related to COVID-19 and argued a one-size-doesn’t-fit-all strategy didn’t reflect infection gaps among Kansas counties.
Ryckman, the House speaker from Olathe, said the governor’s veto of House Bill 2054 would add to instability of Kansans.
In addition to loss of greater legislative oversight of the governor’s management of the pandemic, he said, the veto deleted a plan for quicker inspection of nursing homes and extending liability protection to health workers. The veto derailed a provision lowering penalties for breaking an executive order.
"The veto of this legislation creates unnecessary confusion about the status of the current disaster declaration, what orders are still in place and what Kansans can expect going forward," he said. "In times of crisis and fear, leaders have an obligation to provide stability and take steps to protect the people they serve."
Wagle, the Republican from Wichita and a candidate for U.S. Senate, said Kelly made politically motivated statements about the Legislature’s pandemic measure. Veto of the bill has consequences, she said, but the new role for county officials is welcomed.
"I’m very thankful she’s conceded to our position. She sent authority back to the counties," Wagle said.
Alan Cobb, president of the Kansas Chamber, said the vetoed bill wasn’t perfect but would have granted businesses clarity in uncertain economic times. Many counties are expected to adopt the governor’s plan for phasing in reopening of the economy, he said.
Cobb warned county officials against imposing unreasonable restrictions and suggested individuals could take legal action in response.
"There is recourse if a county or local health officer becomes too restrictive or unreasonable," Cobb said. "Orders issued by counties, so far, have implicated some due process requirements. While counties can regulate public gatherings, the previous county orders also invoked the ability of counties to isolate individuals and make them stay home."
In brief, Kelly issued a new statewide emergency declaration to guarantee continuation for 15 days of the state’s aid to cities and counties dealing with COVID-19. She said the State Finance Council, which includes the governor and eight legislators, should extend that overarching declaration for 30 days.
The governor called a special session of the Legislature for early June to consider a bill modernizing the state’s disaster emergency law.
She retained oversight of $1.25 billion in federal disaster funding.
She passed decisions about business openings, mass gatherings and other considerations to county commissioners and county health officers. The governor’s mandates for a phased reopening of the economy became advisory at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday.
"I want to be clear," Kelly said during a news conference Tuesday, "just because I am lifting most of the executive orders does not mean the current threats of COVID-19 are any less than the threats we faced over the last few months. Quite the opposite."
"I know allowing every county to set its own guidance will likely be confusing," she said. "Unfortunately, this is a direct result of the Legislature’s unfortunate actions last week."
The 2020 Legislature convened last Thursday to push through a pandemic bill and a collection of other measures sought by Republicans. The process went sideways and legislators remained in the Capitol for 24 hours before adjourning Friday.
The new orders
Kelly’s issuance of a new emergency disaster declaration was accompanied by retention of 10 executive orders related to COVID-19.
She said she would continue temporary expansion of telemedicine services, defer certain tax deadlines and payments, extend renewal dates for driver licenses and vehicle registration, and suspend some unemployment insurance requirements.
In addition, the governor said she would allow notaries and witnesses to avoid in-person meetings with use of audio-video technology. Deadlines for licensure and certification of adult care homes would be extended during the pandemic. And, she said, rules on sale of alcoholic beverages would remain suspended.
Kelly warned that failure by the State Finance Council — six of eight legislators on the panel are Republicans — to extend her 15-day emergency declaration could have serious consequences.
The result could be closure of meat processing plants, disruption of unemployment benefits, loss of aid to hog farmers euthanizing animals, inability of the state to receive and distribute persona protective gear to health care workers, a decline in COVID-19 testing and contact tracing and potential loss of federal funding.
"There are those who will see the actions of the Legislature, and my actions, as solely about power. Who has it and who wants it," Kelly said. "but this is not about power. It is about leadership. Being a leader means doing what is difficult and even unpopular. It means standing up for what’s right and not being bullied into taking action that would be a disservice to the people of Kansas."