Jackson County considers lowering indoor attendance limits

Continuing high rate of COVID-19 positive tests and disparities with outdoors limits has county officials mulling over possible changes

By Mike Genet

As infection rates in Jackson County remain high, county officials say they are considering tightening some restrictions on indoor gatherings.

With more than 300 additional COVID-19 cases confirmed since Monday, the total in Jackson County outside of Kansas City had risen to 6,646 as of Friday morning. While Health Director Bridgette Shaffer said the seven-day average of new cases has been trending down, the rolling 14-day average of positive tests remains high – 13.5 percent on Monday, 13.17 percent as of Friday morning – indicating high community spread. The White House has also recommended that bars be closed and dining restricted in Missouri counties with such an average.

“As long as the rate of infection is staying above 10 percent, we’re looking at pulling that inside allowable group number down,” county administrator Troy Schulte told the County Legislature this week, adding that discussion would likely happen next week. Schulte didn’t specify how much they were considering restricting.

Current Jackson County regulations – part of the “Phase 2.5” in reopening plans – allow up to 50 percent capacity at most indoor facilities, as long as the proper social distancing is possible, and up to 100 people for outdoor gatherings. 

The Kansas City Chiefs for now allow about 20 percent capacity for games at Arrowhead Stadium, which is under the jurisdiction of the Kansas City Health Department. 

Schulte had responded to Legislature Chair Theresa Cass Galvin, R-Lee’s Summit, who asked how auditoriums and gymnasiums could have 500 people for events, while a high school football game outdoors could have just 100 – a Chiefs game with several thousand fans notwithstanding.

In addition, the Blue Springs School District sued the county – namely Health Director Bridgette Shaffer – regarding the outdoor attendance limit. A county judge did not grant the district a temporary restraining order last week before a pair of home football games, but the matter remains in court, and Superintendent Paul Kinder confirmed Friday the district is fully prepared to go to trial as scheduled in two weeks unless the two sides resolve the issue outside of court.

When the county put in the current capacity and attendance guidelines in the summer, Schulte said, “One thing at the time was we didn’t have schools open; it was primarily for restaurants and church gatherings. What we’re wrestling with is how to deal with churches because of their First Amendment protections.”

Under the current guidelines, the city of Independence hosted a memorial service last month for former Mayor Don Reimal at Cable Dahmer Arena, with a couple hundred people in attendance, well below 10 percent capacity. The arena also hosted a gun show last weekend, and high schools have hosted volleyball matches with fans in attendance.

“Are you prepared for that backlash?” Galvin asked Schulte about possible tighter restrictions.

Added Jeanie Lauer, R-Blue Springs: “Let’s say at a district where potentially you have 300 in the gym for whatever event, now they could have less, you can still have just 100 outside, and you could have more people upset.”

“As long as that infection rate is above 10 percent, we’re still in that red zone,” Schulte said, “and as the infection rate is high, we think it’s the prudent thing to do. That’s kind of where our thinking is at this point.”

If tighter restrictions happen, Galvin said, “Get ready for phones and emails to start going crazy, because people will get angry and they’ll probably start doing whatever they want to do.”

All area school districts have opened for the new academic year, most with some sort of mix of in-person and remote learning, and with face masks and various other health precautions in place for in-person students. Shaffer emphasized that her department and other public health agencies work with the schools to develop criteria for opening, but ultimately the decisions lie with the individual districts. 

“We provide the framework for making those decisions,” she said.

Shaffer said her department has worked collaboratively with school districts on contact tracing for the schools. The Health Department recently hired 62 additional employees, including 38 disease investigators and three epidemiology specialists for contact tracing. Six more part-time disease investigators for weekends will start this month, she added. The county department also splits certain cases for tracing with the Kansas City Health Department.

With schools open and the recent Labor Day weekend, Shaffer said her department is preparing for a spike in cases, as well as necessary contact tracing, but she is hoping that further testing capacity can keep positive test percentages from a similar rise.