Jackson County officials say they are working to ease the rules for churches to return to services.

“We need to find some way to help these people open up,” County Legislature Chair Theresa Cass Galvin said Monday. “Telling them that hopefully in three or four weeks they might be included in phase two is just not something that’s working for the community.”

County legislators, meanwhile, have delayed having the County Health Department ramp up contact tracing, which public health officials throughout the COVID-19 crisis have said is vital to avoid a return to widespread stay-at-home orders as coronavirus cases continue to rise across the community.

Legislators said Monday they have been inundated with communications from constituents about the desire to reopen churches, as well as gyms and dance studios.

County Administrator Troy Schulte said the county plans to do that, allowing churches to use 10 percent of their occupancy, that is, 10 percent of the number set by the fire marshal.

Galvin pressed for 25 percent instead.

“If you can have a bar open,” she said, “we should be able to find a way to keep churches open, gymnasiums, dance studios ...”

Bridgette Shaffer, director of the County Health Department, urged going slowly.

“As we move forward, we’re doing this with best public health practice,” she told legislators. “We are using guidance from Johns Hopkins that talks about the risk of transmission in these areas, and I think we need to be very cautious as a community on how we move forward and on how we open.”

The office of County Executive Frank White Jr. has released guidelines for phase one of lifting stay-at-home orders and allowing non-essential business to begin reopening. Phase one started Monday, and the next phases are expected to come in the next few weeks if there’s enough progress on COVID cases and deaths.

“We need to have the phase one adjusted” in relation to churches, Galvin said, adding that she wanted an answer by the end of the week. Schulte said some changes were to be announced Monday, though the executive’s office had not made an announcement as of Tuesday morning.

Last week, Abundant Life Baptist Church in Lee’s Summit and Blue Springs sued the county over the phase one guidelines, alleging “unconstitutional and unlawful discrimination against religious institutions and person in orders and plans.” EPIC Church in Independence had indicated it will join the lawsuit if the county doesn’t reconsider.

Gyms want to open

Legislator Jeanie Lauer, R-Blue Springs, said gyms are making the argument that, as franchisees, they fall under those companies’ national guidelines.

“The franchise already has compliance issues in place, and protocol for sanitization and distancing and so forth, so the gym owner is already complying with that, but for the fact that Jackson County is more stringent,” Lauer said.

She added, “They are wanting to be open just like everyone else.”

Legislator Dan Tarwater, D-Kansas City, said social media could be a powerful force here.

“If you have a gym that’s open and has a bunch of people in it and they’re not wiping down the machinery and all the rest of it, they’re going to lose their business,” he said. “They’re going to lose their customers. Same with the bars and restaurants.”

Some legislators picked up on Shaffer’s point that coronavirus cases are going to keep rising, and they expressed concern that people are not taking guidelines such as wearing facemasks and staying home except for essential trips seriously.

“I’m not sure what else we have to do to communicate the seriousness of what’s going on,” said Ronald Finely, D-Kansas City.

Jalen Anderson, D-Blue Springs, echoed that.

“This can get really bad, really quickly. … This is a very real thing,” he said.

Contact tracing delayed

Also Monday, legislators balked at $5 million to substantially increase contact tracing of COVID-19 cases. They voted to hold the issue for at least a week.

“We need a lot of resources to do this and do it smartly in Jackson County,” Shaffer told legislators.

Contact tracing is part of what she called a “box-it-in” strategy that also includes widely available coronavirus testing.

The Health Department normally has a communicable disease staff of three but has pressed other employees – nurses, data analysts – into that work for the moment and getting that team up to 11 people. The plan is to add 52 temporary employees to ramp up that work for the next six months.

“This is critical to us reopening in a phased approach,” Shaffer said.

She added, “We need staff to be able to manage those outbreaks.”

Without steps to control the disease, she said, the county will have to revert to phased closings, “which is not what we want to do,” she said.

As it stands, the department has had to leave other work undone as reassigned staff has been focused on COVID-19.

“We haven’t done immunizations in over a month and a half,” Shaffer said.

Contact tracing has been used for decades.

“This is just a different disease that we’re doing case investigation for,” Shaffer said.

She outlined how it works.

“There’s a case identified,” she said. “We isolate that positive case, and then we identify the contacts of the case. We place those contacts on quarantine for 14 days. And during that 14 days we follow up with them twice a day … to check on their symptoms.”

Lauer asked if that can pose privacy concerns, but Legislator Crystal Williams – who expressed exasperation at the decision to delay the contact tracing contract – said health departments here and elsewhere have used this technique in tracking and controlling STDs for many years.

“I’ve never heard a complaint about how they’ve handled that, so I’m going to assume they can do it,” she said.

The $5 million would cover hiring 52 people – 38 contact tracers, community health workers to focus on recovery, emergency response planners, others – as well as tests kits, lab costs and personal protective equipment for the team. Shaffer said the number of people she’s asking for is one-third of the level suggested by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Legislators said they still have questions about the costs, and they voted to hold the issue.