Jackson County is expected to release guidelines Wednesday for beginning to reopen businesses and facilities after more than a month of stay-at-home measures.
Those rules include nonessential businesses reopening, but with some kind of capacity limitation. No matter how much is open, officials still urge great caution to mitigate COVID-19 spread.
The county starts phase one of reopening from the stay-at-home order on May 11, a few days earlier than originally planned.
County Executive Frank White Jr. told county legislators Monday that with the state as well as Cass, Platte and Clay counties letting go of their stay-at-home orders on May 4, the intent of Jackson, Johnson and Wyandotte counties was to "come up with a date that just won’t confuse people."
He said those counties’ health departments said May 11 was the best date. He said Eastern Jackson County mayors have been consulted in that process.
Two of them, Carson Ross of Blue Springs and Eileen Weir of Independence, said Tuesday they and four other mayors agreed on a majority of the county’s recommended guidelines and gave their ideas of some changes for the others. The county had also invited citizens to fill out a short online survey on guideline recommendations.
"I like to see Jackson County stand in a unified way," Ross said. "All these different dates are confusing to people because jurisdictional lines are invisible."
"It’s a very complicated, complex issue," he said, "and there’s not an easy answer and not a one size fits all."
Mayors from Grandview, Lee’s Summit, Raytown and Sugar Creek also joined in the conference. Kansas City has designed its own reopening guidelines.
County Administrator Troy Schulte on Monday outlined what’s coming. The county’s stay-at-home order is lifted at 12:01 a.m. May 11 – though people are strongly advised to continue to stay home as much as possible.
"It’s pretty much up to the individual person now to manage their time and their safety," White said.
In phase one, nonessential businesses can reopen. Bars, restaurants and nonessential retailers can only go to 25 percent of their spaces’ capacity for people. Personal services – salons, beauty shops, barber shops – can take customers by appointment.
"There will be at least two others phases (in the coming weeks) after that as we get back to a normal operation," Schulte said.
Mayors have a say
Ross said the mayors agreed on about 85 percent of the county’s initial draft and had a consensus on what they hoped to see changed on the rest. Weir, who has been vocal recently about the need for municipal input with county guidelines, said the guidelines are in 10 or 11 categories and the mayor agreed on seven of them. The others were more about nuances, such as a guideline in a certain reopening phase or whether to use an actual number or a percentage.
"There was nothing like "Oh, we just can’t accept that,’" Weir said. "At the end of the day, we felt if the county stuck where it was heading, we could live with that."
"I feel like we’re all learning our way through this process," Weir said. "I think we showed that we are aligned, and when we have a voice in the process, we get to an agreement quickly."
Ross said another concern for mayors is how the county will divide portions of the $123 million in stimulus funds it is receiving from the federal government.
"What’s the criteria for receiving these funds," he said, "because we can’t just do it on population."
County officials made clear that a continued increase in COVID-19 cases is a good possibility.
"We’re going to watch this like a hawk," said Legislator Jalen Anderson, D-Blue Springs.
He said he understands that people want to get out and about but said he’s lost several friends to the disease and called it "not something to be played with."
"... we also cannot give in to the idea that just because someone wants to go shop somewhere that that is worth the life of someone else," Anderson said. "I just want that to be said. We cannot be in this mindset that we have passed this disease."
Officials conceded that there’s no solid mechanism – not enough cops, for starters – to rigidly enforce these rules, but Schulte said compliance has been good. Customers, employees and others have contacted the county about bad actors, and then simple steps – a phone call, then a letter if needed, then a follow-up visit – have meant that only a handful have needed to be turned over to municipalities for further action, he said.
Legislator Dan Tarwater, D-Kansas City, said people are eager to get back out but also suggested that people will be quick to take to social media to call out businesses they think are not taking social distancing and other measures seriously.
Other legislators expressed concern about a continued rise in cases.
"Do not pile into bars and decide this is over, because it’s not," said Crystal Williams, D-Kansas City.
She said polling consistently shows that people support stay-at-home orders, She said her concern is about those who have the disease but are showing no symptoms while spreading it to others.
"And they are the people that are the most danger to all of us," she said.
She added, "I’m worried, and I guess I just wanted to say that."
Anderson asked White if the county is ready to act if cases rise sharply.
"That’s why you have the different phases," White said. "So you see how this works for two or three weeks. … And if it does spike to the point that we feel is serious then we can always go back to where we were at that point, based on the data."
Anderson said the county needs to be prepared to take "extreme and drastic measures" if needed so Kansas City doesn’t end up like New York or Chicago. He said he understands that some oppose government action based on what they see as constitutional grounds.
"I intend to defend the Constitution," he said, "but I also want to defend the ability to say that my mother does not have to die just for you to go out and buy a hammer. That’s not where we are."
White said, "I think it’s going to come down to the community in the long run and how well they follow the guidelines and how well they set their businesses up according to the protocols from the health departments. If they do the things that they – If they follow the guidelines I think that it will be a lot less of a chance – but obviously you will see some spike (in cases) probably."
Legislators brought up several instances of people ignoring rules on face masks and social distancing, particularly at home-improvement stores.
White agreed. He said he was in one last weekend and said the only observance of the six-foot rule was in the checkout line.
"I just kind of shook my head and put my mask on," he said.
Ross emphasized "this virus is nothing to play with," and elected officials and citizens have to listen to advice from health professionals. But he says the aspects of mental and social isolation should be factored into finding a balance with reopening.
"When you have people not working and business having to close, that’s a mental stress," Ross said. "People not bringing home pay, that’s a mental stress."
"This is not an easy time in the country, the state or the community, but we’ll get through it."
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