May 20, 2020 1:49 PM

Kan. rolls back restrictions, but pool won't be open for Memorial Day

Posted May 20, 2020 1:49 PM
Movie theaters like this one in Wichita will be able to reopen on Friday. Hugo Phan / KMUW
Movie theaters like this one in Wichita will be able to reopen on Friday. Hugo Phan / KMUW

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly announced the latest phase-out of her coronavirus-driven statewide shutdown. The changes start on Friday.

Kansas News Service

TOPEKA — Starting Friday, Kansans can gather in slightly larger groups, take in a movie, go to an art museum and bowl a few frames.

But concerts, festivals, summer camps and parades will remain shut down. And you still won’t be able to get a drink at a bar.

At a news conference Tuesday a day before a meeting with President Donald Trump in the White House, Gov. Laura Kelly announced another round of gradually eased restrictions aimed at stemming the spread of COVID-19.

"We may be transitioning to Phase 2," the governor told reporters, "but we still have a long ways to go before arriving at anything bordering on normal.”

Kelly already delayed what she’d billed as Phase 2 of her plan to reopen the Kansas economy. It was scheduled to kick in Monday. Instead, she moved to Phase 1.5 at the start of the week, allowing gyms, salons and tattoo parlors to open their doors — as long as they followed social distancing guidelines and scheduled appointments.

Kansas is still seeing coronavirus hot spots across the state, like meatpacking counties in southwestern Kansas and a new cluster in Topeka related to a nearby lake. But her next round of loosened rules — coming just before the Memorial Day weekend — follow a weekend where Kansas recorded only one death and a handful of new hospitalizations.

So far, the state has recorded more than 8,000 cases, some 740 hospitalizations and more than 170 deaths from COVID-19.

About a week ago, Kelly instituted a modified version of her reopening plans, despite record unemployment claims and scores of businesses warning the shutdown could doom them.

Even in the latest phase that starts Friday, both indoor and outdoor entertainment venues built for more than 2,000 people can’t open. Self-service food or beverage operations remain forbidden.

Bars, nightclubs and swimming pools must stay closed.

But the lid on gatherings increases to 15 people. State-owned casinos can open (the governor doesn’t have authority over tribal casinos, though many have closed), but they have to run their operations plans by state health officials.

Community centers can open if they limit the number of people who can come in. Recreational sports leagues get a go-ahead, but only if they meet in small groups and players keep their distance from each other. Small graduation ceremonies are OK, increasing the number from 10 to 15 people at a time.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

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May 20, 2020 1:49 PM
Battle over how quickly Kansas reopens increasingly bitter
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly answered questions during a Tuesday news conference in Topeka.

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A battle in Kansas between the Democratic governor and Republican-controlled Legislature over reopening the economy has grown increasingly bitter, clouded by election year politics present and past.

Gov. Laura Kelly has joined Democratic colleagues in other states including Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in facing a GOP backlash over actions designed to contain the coronavirus pandemic. In Kansas, many Republican lawmakers expect to pass a measure to curb the governor’s power in emergencies when the Legislature convenes Thursday for a final day in session this year. That would force Kelly to choose between accepting their limits or having the state’s current state of emergency expire.

Republicans are taking cues from aggrieved business owners, but Kelly’s biggest legislative critic also is running for the U.S. Senate and struggling to get traction in a crowded field. Many GOP lawmakers say they have been ignored, and Kelly’s taking charge in the pandemic irks some Republicans who still see her 2018 election win as a fluke.

Kelly promised a bipartisan approach to governing when she took office in January 2019, but she has clashed at times with top Republicans. Many GOP lawmakers refuse to concede that her election meant a new direction for a state Republicans had nearly complete control over before she crashed their party..

“A conservative Republican leadership sees a Democratic governor and it wants to hit her like a pinata,” said Rabbi Moti Rieber, executive director of Kansas Interfaith Action, an alliance of Jewish and mainline Christian congregations that has given Kelly good marks for her handling of the pandemic.

Ahead of Thursday’s last legislative day, Kansas House and Senate committees have heard testimony questioning Kelly’s handling of the pandemic. Committees expect to approve bills aimed at reining in the broad power state law gives a governor in emergencies, with Republicans arguing in favor of legislative oversight and more local decision-making.

The same laws that give Kelly broad powers in emergency required her to ask lawmakers to extend her disaster declaration to keep those powers in force. Republican lawmakers last week extended her current declaration only through Monday, Memorial Day, even though she had asked them to keep it in place until mid-June. Kelly acknowledged Tuesday that she is likely boxed in if GOP lawmakers attach conditions to extending her declaration.

But Kelly insisted Tuesday that she’s focused only on public health and economic issues.

“I really have put on, sort of, visual and audio blinders,” she said during a Statehouse news conference.

Republicans said they’re looking to check the governor’s power so that people’s constitutional rights are not violated and that they’re responding to desperate pleas jobless workers and owners of shuttered businesses.

A survey last week from the University of Chicago Divinity School and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research showed that 71% of Americans favored requiring people to stay in their homes except for essential errands. But GOP lawmakers in Kansas see that as a general sentiment reflecting people’s concerns about getting infected.

“If you look at their behavior, they’re packing Wal-Mart. They’re packing Lowe’s. It’s springtime. They want the kids back in sports. They want the kids back in schools,” said Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican. “We need to create a safe environment for Kansans and put them back to work.”

Wagle has been a vocal critic of Kelly since Kelly took office, and she’s ramped up her criticism during the pandemic, even suggesting last week that the governor had become a “dictator.” Wagle also is running for an open U.S. Senate seat and is seen as badly trailing the leading contenders.

There’s also little doubt that a quicker reopening plays well with President Donald Trump’s political base in a state that Trump carried in 2016 by nearly 21 percentage points.

But legislative elections this year also are part of the backdrop. Republicans hope to keep their super-majorities in both chambers, making it easier for them to thwart Kelly’s initiatives ahead of the 2022 governor’s race.

And some Republicans, particularly conservatives, still feel a sting from her 2018 victory over hard-right GOP Secretary of State Kris Kobach and independent candidate Greg Orman. Kelly fell short of 50% of the vote and won a relative handful of the state’s 105 counties, though they included the five most populous ones.

Conservatives have questioned whether Kelly has a political mandate that justifies orders to close schools and businesses statewide.

“She was elected by nine counties with 48% of the vote, so I think there’s a legitimate concern,” said Sen. Dennis Pyle, a conservative Republican from the state’s far northeast corner. “People want a check on the governor’s powers.”