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TOPEKA — Defiance of Gov. Laura Kelly’s handling of COVID-19 emerged immediately from members of the Legislature and gained momentum as barbers, ministers and gun-rights activists chafed under statewide government restrictions and led pandemic skeptics to increasingly thumb their nose at health risks.
Criticism of the Democratic governor’s performance since the crisis bloomed in March hasn’t been universal.
President Donald Trump said during Kelly’s trip to the White House in mid-May that she was doing a "fantastic job," earning her a form of presidential praise Kansas GOP politicians eagerly seek from Trump.
Sen. Dinah Sykes, a Johnson County Democrat, said the decision by Kelly in March to be the first governor to call off in-person classes in all public and private K-12 schools "saved lives."
In self-defense, Kelly said health and safety considerations guided her thought process. She said she clung to that principle even while issuing executive orders disliked by a majority of the people she represented.
"This is not about power," the governor said. "It is about leadership. It means standing up for what’s right and not being bullied into taking action that would be disastrous for the people of Kansas."
Kelly launched a series of news conferences on COVID-19 broadcast live on Facebook. Each represented a rare chance for a Kansas governor to repeatedly take messages directly to the people. Most draw audiences of 30,000 or 60,000 viewers.
Still, the effort wasn’t likely to mute criticism.
McPherson barber Luke Aichele created a stir by denouncing Kelly’s closure of nonessential businesses, including hairdressers and barbers struggling to hold on to their small businesses. He said shutting down his barber shop was "discriminatory, biased and not very well thought out."
In Manhattan, City Commissioner Mark Hatesohl said government officials exaggerated dangers of COVID-19 and he concluded it would be best to welcome spread of the infection and begin developing mass immunity so people could "get back to living."
Todd Eck, of Wichita, showed up at a Statehouse rally in opposition to the governor’s executive orders. He volunteered to be injected with COVID-19 to demonstrate it wasn’t something to be feared. Others at the event, including Kennedy Horacek, brought semi-automatic rifles to proclaim their right to protect themselves from the kind of tyranny embodied by Kelly.
Maj. Gen. David Weishaar, adjutant general for the Kansas Army and Air Guard, had to tamp down bizarre claims on social media the National Guard would be mobilized to enforce a national quarantine. He said such claims "only create confusion" and advised people to seek out COVID-19 information from reliable sources.
Rep. Trevor Jacobs, a Fort Scott Republican, accused the governor of not being transparent with information about COVID-19.
"We are Kansans," Jacobs said. "We don’t trust in fear, but in God. Don’t keep us in the dark."
Virus cuts deep
Kansas health officials have affirmed nearly 10,000 residents of the state tested positive for the virus. Cases have been found in 88 of 105 counties. More than 840 Kansans have been hospitalized. At least 208 died.
This profound health, economic and political struggle has drawn out the best in people — look no further than the mask donation by retired Kansas farmer Dennis Ruhnke, who sent a poignant letter to New York’s governor while donating a mask to a New York health worker.
But the darker side of pandemic politics remains. There is an ongoing contest to assign blame to public officials, who are easy targets for folks not personally accountable for any outcome but eager to second-guess others shouldering that burden. The governor retains primary control of $1.25 billion in emergency federal aid, but county governments are free of most statewide orders issued in the past two months.
Kansas, so far, has experienced testing equipment shortages, closure of K-12 and college campuses, a shocking racial disparity among those killed, major outbreaks at prisons and meatpacking plants, a projected $1.2 billion state government revenue shortfall and wacky rumors of conspiracy theorists.
The governor issued more than 30 executive orders, most of which caused little controversy. Others, however, fostered huge conflict. That list includes the constitutionally questionable edict on in-person church services. It led to legal challenges, hyper-political commentary and a workable settlement.
Kelly’s controversial stay-at-home directive triggered distress among people unable to go to work. More than 200,000 people filed for unemployment in Kansas, but the tidal wave of applications inundated the state labor department’s computer system. Some people are still waiting for checks.
The governor called on the Legislature to return Wednesday to craft a bipartisan bill updating state law guiding the government during pandemics. She vetoed a reform bill adopted during a 24-hour marathon gathering of the Legislature.
"I wish it had been a joke. I wish it had been some sort of metaphor," said Kelly, a former state senator from Topeka. "I also wish that this had not been the most embarrassing, irresponsible display of governing that we have witnessed throughout this ordeal."
The one-day proceeding at the Capitol was viewed skeptically by Rep. Ken Corbet, R-Topeka, who said: "It kind of reminds me of ’Gunsmoke’ — everybody wants to load as much s*** on the wagon as they can before it gets out of town."
A Johnson County woman who traveled to the East Coast was the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Kansas. She was hospitalized in a special hospital unit in Kansas City, Kan.
"We will have more cases in the state," said Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. "It’s going to be hard ... to contain it."
The case was a preview of how deeply Wyandotte and Johnson counties would be touched by the virus. So far, the two counties account for more than 2,000 cases of infection and at least 130 deaths.
Kelly signed an order declaring a state of emergency on March 12.
Sen. Mike Thompson, a Johnson County Republican appointed to the seat in January, said the governor’s decision to close schools and limit large gatherings fueled public anxiety.
"For us to limit access of everyone to schools, to business, I think is inciting a panic that is unnecessary. This is not the ebola virus," Thompson said.
In an odd twist, the governor’s gender became an issue in the COVID-19 debate. Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, accused some Republicans of trying to blunt the governor’s authority because she was a woman.
"They are too blinded by their own egos and their fragile masculinity to respect the authority of the position," Hensley said.
Sen. Gene Suellentrop, R-Wichita, took exception to a letter Hensley sent to House and Senate members asserting that Suellentrop and Sen. Rob Olson, R-Olathe, engaged in "implicit racist attacks" of Delia Garcia, secretary of the Kansas Department of Labor. Both GOP senators had aggressively questioned Garcia during a Senate committee hearing about unresolved problems with processing unemployment benefit claims.
"I don’t know what it’s like to be called the N-word. I can’t even fathom that," Suellentrop said. "I feel it’s pretty darn close to that. The vile, vulgar accusation of being a racist."
Kelly issued an order April 7 limiting church gatherings to 10 people or fewer. She was responding to evidence 25% of infection clusters in Kansas were traced to church meetings. The governor, lacking enforcement authority to block church attendance, said she was "committed to protecting Kansas’ religious liberty."
GOP legislators aggressively argued Kelly sought to criminalize church attendance.
The Kansas Supreme Court let Kelly’s church order stand, prompting a First Amendment lawsuit in federal court. The case was handled by an Arizona organization on behalf of pastor Aaron Harris, of Calvary Baptist Church in Junction City, and pastor Stephen Ormord, of First Baptist Church in Dodge City.
"Singling out churches for special punishment while allowing others to have greater freedom not only makes no logical sense, it’s clearly unconstitutional," said Ryan Tucker, an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt discouraged law enforcement officers and prosecutors from enforcing Kelly’s order on gatherings at churches. In response, Kelly accused Schmidt of an "overtly political attack."
Schmidt said he recommended against Kelly issuing the order regulating churches and promised to make his feelings known if she went ahead with her plan.
"She did, and so did I," Schmidt said.
Full scope of COVID-19’s influence on the Kansas economy is unknown, but fiscal analysts believe the state government will experience a $1.2 billion budget shortfall in the fiscal year starting July 1. The state’s cash reserves of more than $900 million and infusion of billions of dollars in federal emergency assistance cushioned immediate impact of a derailed economy and unprecedented unemployment.
David Toland, secretary of the Kansas Department of Commerce, said in mid-April the fallout would be lasting.
"The Kansas economy has taken a body blow from COVID and that extended from the ag sector to manufacturing to the service sector," he said. "Everybody has been hit. It’s urban, rural, suburban, across the board."
In Linn County, a county requirement that merchants compile lists of their customers for purposes of possibly tracking down people unknowingly infected with COVID-19 led to a court fight.
Jackie Taylor, owner and publisher of Linn County News, and Linda Jo Hisel, who operates Nana Jo’s restaurant in La Cygne, filed suit to reverse the order issued by the county regarding contact tracing. Violations of the countywide order carried a $500 fine.
"We have a great deal of trust in our county officials, but this just goes too far," Taylor said. "COVID is serious, but we can’t let our most basic rights be eroded."
In the end, the county modified the order and the case was dismissed.
Dennis Ruhnke, a retired farmer in his 70s living near Troy with his wife, Sharon, decided in March to share one of his five medical-grade N95 respirators, which were coveted by health care workers.
He kept four masks for protection from the coronavirus pandemic, but mailed the respirator and a letter of explanation to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
"If you could," Ruhnke wrote, "would you please give this mask to a nurse or doctor in your state?"
Cuomo read from the letter during an April news conference.
"It's that love, that courage, that generosity of spirit that makes this country so beautiful," Cuomo said.
Kansas State University presented Ruhnke with a degree that he had been two credits short of earning for 50 years.
Damien Stevens, a critical-care physician at the University of Kansas Health System in Kansas City, Kan., volunteered to work for a week in a New York City hospital at height of the pandemic in April.
He said isolation required of dying patients at the Queens hospital was heartbreaking. In-person visits weren’t allowed, so nurses used iPads to link patients to family members.
"That’s kind of the final sadness," Stevens said. "I saw some patients that were married 30 to 40 years and we would transition them to comfort measures and the only way they had to say goodbye to family members would be through an iPad."