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Sedgwick County Sticks With Governor's Plan For Reopening Community

Nadya Faulx
The state will reopen in phases after more than a month under a stay-at-home order.

Sedgwick County is not imposing any additional local restrictions or policies to Gov. Laura Kelly’s phased-in plan for reopening the community unveiled Thursday night.

The statewide stay-at-home order that went into effect on March 30 will expire Sunday, allowing most restaurants, stores and other idled businesses to reopen if they use industry-specific safety protocols. A limit on gatherings of more than 10 people remains in effect through at least May 18.

County commissioners held a meeting Friday to go over details of the plan, and get clarifications from legal staff.

County health officer Dr. Garold Minns recommended that the county accept the governor’s executive order.

"I’m comfortable accepting the governor’s plan," Minns said. "I could argue with her on a few small points but I think the package is pretty good."

For nearly six weeks, the statewide public health orders have kept people home except when they needed to leave for essential work, groceries, gas or medical appointments. Businesses that were not considered "essential" shut down their physical space and worked remotely or stopped operations temporarily.

Minns said these strategies were successful in slowing the spread of the coronavirus in Sedgwick County, and in keeping cases at a manageable level for hospitals.

"I really respect what the people in this county have done, and because of that and because we got on it fairly early, we were able to keep our numbers in better control than our sister counties in northeast Kansas," Minns said.

As public activity slowly resumes, Minns and state health leaders will be closely watching hospital admissions, the number of patients being treated in ICUs and the number of COVID-related deaths.

Minns said policies will need to be adjusted if there’s a surge in serious COVID-19 cases and deaths.

“We will, both at the governor’s level and the local level, look at our numbers," he said, "and if we see things going the wrong direction, we will have to come back and talk about what we’re going to do about it."

Minns recommended keeping playgrounds closed, but county commissioners did not take any action on his recommendation.

The commissioners did vote to end the public complaint system that was handling reports about possible stay-at-home policy violations. Commissioner Michael O’Donnell on Friday repeatedly called it a "snitch line," and urged the board to remove the process from the county’s website.

“I don’t like this whole idea of living in a police state where we are having government have a vehicle for people to turn in their neighbors on something,” O’Donnell said.

County Manager Tom Stolz said the county received more than 1,000 reports since the system began in late March. He said the county sent letters to 162 businesses that were not in compliance and provided information to law enforcement, though officers were never dispatched.

Stolz was asked to review the complaint process and enforcement procedures and provide alternative options by Wednesday’s commission meeting.

Gov. Kelly said on Thursday that the reopening plan sets the regulatory baseline for local governments in each phase, and local governments have the ability to impose additional restrictions that are in the best interest of the health of their residents. She said any specific guidelines not outlined in the plan are the jurisdiction of each local government.

By Friday afternoon, Stolz reported that the county had already received many calls from business owners or employees asking for clarifications on whether they could open, or the specific safety protocols required for reopening. Stolz said he directed callers to review the governor’s plan online.

Preparing to reopen

Under the first phase of the governor’s plan, going into effect on Monday, restaurants will be able to once again open their doors. Many have already been preparing to welcome back customers for the first time in weeks.

Phil Schoenhofer, owner of the Copper Oven in west Wichita, said the phone has been “ringing off the hook” with customers wanting to know when the cafe would reopen. It closed for business on March 24; Schoenhofer said the restaurant didn’t do enough carryout business to warrant shifting to curbside pickup. 

The Copper Oven will reopen at 7 a.m. Tuesday with new safety protocols, a limited menu, and limited seating — Schoenhofer said usual 150-seat capacity will be limited to about 70 diners at a time.

“We’re still working out exactly the floor chart ad how we’re going to seat people and figure out how to maintain our social distancing properly.”

Staff will be required to wear face masks and gloves, and the café installed plexi glass barriers — added costs at a time when funds are already depleted.

Employees at Larkspur Bistro in Old Town have spent the shutdown deep cleaning the restaurant. When it reopens on Wednesday, there will be hand sanitizing stations around the restaurant, and no condiments on table tops to help prevent the spread of germs, explains general manager James Chesick.

He said they’re not expecting much business when they first reopen.

“I know just from my personal experience and the people I know, not everyone’s quite ready to be out in that much public yet,” he said.

And some restaurants aren’t ready to reopen at all. Meddys owner Alex Harb said the franchise’s three locations will remain closed to diners for now, and he’ll stick with curbside pickup at his east Wichita location.

"I don’t feel safe for my staff and my customers," he said. "I’m just gonna wait."

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Kansas is still rising, which health officials attribute to expanded testing. Harb said the situation surrounding the coronavirus hasn’t changed since he closed his restaurants in mid-March.

"The main thing about going out to a restaurant is the experience," he said. "So when we get to a point where we go out and we have to be wearing masks and we can’t to talk each other and we can’t touch the tables and we can’t touch the doors, there’s no point in going out to a restaurant.

"We’re better off eating at home."

Later phases

Hair salons didn’t make the cut for reopening on Monday, although many stylists were ready to get back to business. Now, they will likely have to wait until May 18, when phase two of the governor’s plan begins.

Nikki VanRanken, a hair stylist at Cut Loose salon in west Wichita, said she was disappointed when she found out she wouldn’t be going back to work this week.

"We were geared up to wear face masks. We were going to wear gloves. We were going to sanitize our stations before and after each client," VanRanken said. "We were ready."

VanRanken got her cosmetology license 10 years ago. She said she’s questioning her career choice now because as a stylist who rents a booth in her salon, she can’t file for unemployment.

"Most [hair stylists] aren’t being approved because we’re self-employed," VanRanken said.

She said that while she’s anxious to get back to work, she understands the importance of taking it slow. VanRanken’s grandpa was diagnosed with COVID-19 in April.

"When you have a loved one who gets the coronavirus, it hits home a little harder," she said.

Once she gets back to work, she’ll be busy: VanRanken said that she has more than 50 appointments to reschedule, and the list keeps growing. She said it will take her about two months to get caught up.

Justin Gilman, owner of Salon Teased downtown, said that he and his employees are ready to get back to work, but he doesn’t want to take any risks.

"It was a big letdown, but at the same time I understand," he said. "We don’t want to be the cause of anyone getting sick, or worse. We want to do the best we can to prevent anything like that."

Ascha Lee and Nadya Faulx contributed to this story.

Deborah joined the news team at KMUW in September 2014 as a news reporter. She spent more than a dozen years working in news at both public and commercial radio and television stations in Ohio, West Virginia and Detroit, Michigan. Before relocating to Wichita in 2013, Deborah taught news and broadcasting classes at Tarrant County College in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas area.