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Is Sedgwick County Ready To Reopen? Business And Health Leaders Disagree.

Nadya Faulx

Local business leaders and health care experts are at odds over when — and how — Sedgwick County should begin to ease its coronavirus lockdown.

County commissioners began talks last week about the process of reopening businesses that have been closed for weeks because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gov. Laura Kelly indicated this weekend she will begin easing restrictions on social gatherings as early as May 4; her current statewide stay-at-home order expires May 3.

In a letter to county commissioners, the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce says it supports “reigniting the economy” through a phased, data-driven approach.

“We are encouraged by the data we have seen and the prospects for many south central Kansas businesses to open their doors again, even as we stay vigilant in taking precautions to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” writes board chair Junetta Everett.

She says businesses — with guidance from county leaders and health officials — are equipped to begin safely reopening.

“We believe that the decisions you make in the coming weeks can be smart and safe while still addressing the critical challenges businesses and workers are facing right now,” she says in the letter. “COVID-19 has destroyed the lives and livelihoods of many in our community, but we will work to restore them.”

Jobless claims have surged in Kansas as businesses deemed non-essential have had to shutter indefinitely. But some local physicians say it’s too soon to reopen the community.

A panel made up of four members of the Medical Society of Sedgwick County sent commissioners a list of recommendations, urging them to extend the stay-at-home order at least 7 days past when it’s set to expire.

“The surge of the COVID-19 outbreak reached Kansas and Sedgwick County later than other states and communities,” the panel says in a statement submitted to commissioners. “This suggests that our peak will occur later and that, consequently, the reopening of our community should occur later than other communities.

"Though our cases are not increasing exponentially, it is unknown whether the peak has occurred in Sedgwick County.”

The panel — which consists of infectious disease specialist Tom Moore, emergency physician Howard Chang, family medicine specialist Sheryl Beard and pulmonologist Chloe Steinshouer — also notes that Sedgwick County hasn’t met the White House’s criteria for reopening.

“Specifically, we have not demonstrated a robust program of testing and a downward trend of cases over a 14-day period.”

Other recommendations include:

  • Increasing rates of testing in Sedgwick County
  • Maintaining group size limits “for all purposes”
  • Making masks “a community standard” for everyone when they’re outside the home
  • And all businesses requiring staff and patrons to wear a mask

The chamber of commerce in its letter to commissioners urges them to look at the rate of cases, rather than the raw number, as testing does increase.
County health officer Garold Minns said Friday that hospitals in the area think they’re seeing a “flat” peak of cases.

“They’re feeling good about the fact that we’re not going to have a huge surge," he said, "and I think they’re feeling more comfortable that we can move ahead now and get the economy back going.”

But it won’t happen at once, he said. He and county health director Adrienne Byrne will speak to commissioners during their meeting Wednesday about the stay-at-home order and limited public gatherings.

“Like any patient recovering from an injury, our community has had an injury,” Minns said. “It takes some time to recover, and our community is going to take some time to recover.”

Nadya Faulx is KMUW's Digital News Editor and Reporter, which means she splits her time between working on-air and working online, managing news on KMUW.org, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. She joined KMUW in 2015 after working for a newspaper in western North Dakota. Before that she was a diversity intern at NPR in Washington, D.C.