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Jackson County wrestles with COVID-19 rules

Jeff Fox
jeff.fox@examiner.net

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise sharply in Eastern Jackson County and the metro area generally, regional officials are discussing reimposing tighter measures to limit contact among people – but only if the largest jurisdictions all act together.

“We’re wrestling, quite honestly, with what our plan is because we can only move as a region because the virus doesn’t have any boundaries,” Jackson County Administrator Troy Schulte told county legislators Monday.

“If we could contain the virus strictly in Eastern Jackson County I think we could handle it,” he said. “But the problem is Johnson County is essentially wide open, Kansas City, Missouri for all intents and purposes is wide open, and Wyandotte County and Eastern Jackson County have the biggest restrictions from a health-code standpoint. So we’ve got to figure out a way to balance this thing regionally.”

The discussion came as the county’s health director, Bridgette Shaffer, updated legislators on the spread of COVID-19 in Eastern Jackson County and Grandview, which is the jurisdiction of the county Health Department.

“Once again, last week was our highest week of reported cases in Eastern Jackson County,” she said, adding that the 14-day rolling average of positive tests for COVID is now more than 15 percent – more than doubling in the last three weeks.

“So those are two really big concerns that we continue to monitor,” she said.

As of Monday morning, there had been 3,384 cases of COVID-19 in Eastern Jackson County, up more than 800 from eight days earlier. Fifty-nine people had died.

Shaffer and Schulte both said large gatherings of people continue to be a problem.

“That’s really what we’re mostly concerned about. … A majority of our clusters that we’re seeing are due to gatherings,” Shaffer said.

Across the metro area, face masks are required for those out in public, but the rules are uneven beyond that.

In Eastern Jackson County, gatherings of up to 100 people are allowed, and bars and restaurants can operate at 50 percent of capacity, a loosening of the rules since late spring, when the county also had a stay-at-home order.

“We have a hundred-person limit,” Schulte said. “We’re still having problems with people circumventing that.”

Wyandotte County in Kansas has essentially the same rules as Eastern Jackson County, but Kansas City, Missouri and Johnson County, Kansas don’t have such rules.

Officials of those four governments – the so-called Core4 – meet regularly on a variety of issues. Caleb Clifford, chief of staff to County Executive Frank White Jr., said they will meet next week to discuss “the dramatic increases in cases in the area and potential changes that could occur to our reopening orders across the region.”

“I think the biggest thing,” Shaffer said, “is people need to wear masks. That has got to be a number one priority. And I think when there are small gatherings that are occurring in our community, and there’s just disregard for mask compliance and the mask order, then that’s going to create additional cases.”

Legislators pressed Schulte and Shaffer on why more isn’t being done,

Legislator Jalen Anderson, D-Blue Springs, said the county is now seeing weekly COVID numbers that match entire months in spring.

“Is there a campaign … to help people understand that this is severely, severely different than (where) we were in March and April?” he asked. Shaffer agreed that more education is needed.

Anderson said this could hammer the economy and people’s paychecks. He said Gov. Mike Parson is doing nothing and said even if the county is a couple steps ahead of that, it might not be enough.

“I worry that we’re going to kind of be left out on an island by ourselves. … If we don’t do something, I don’t know how we recover,” he said,

He added, “This is bigger than what we faced before, and we shut down.”

Legislator Ronald Finley, D-Kansas City, said it seems that in White’s administration a “decision has been pretty much made from my observation that we’re probably not going to shut down Jackson County again – and maybe we will.”

Schulte put it differently.

“I think the conversation was … if we’re going to go back on the reopening we need to go back as a region,” he said. “I don’t think we can back up by ourselves and have an impact. So if we’re going to back up this has got to be done regionally, and that’s why that conversation started. Otherwise, I think we hold the course.”

Rumors

Officials also said they want to quash rumors about businesses being fined for not following the safety, particularly regarding masks. Shaffer said there is no fine. If someone makes a complaint, the county calls the business. On a second complaint, a letter is sent. On a third complaint, the county sends someone to check it out, and if that person sees no problem, that’s the end of it. On a fourth complaint, the Sheriff’s Office would be called.

The only exception, she said, would be Environmental Health workers – food inspectors – making their rounds and seeing that a business lacked a sign for customers or staff not wearing masks. That business would be shut down for 24 hours, and she said that hasn’t happened yet.

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