The city of Wichita said it will work with Sedgwick County to enforce the county’s new public health order.
The order passed last week tightens restrictions on certain businesses and mass gatherings, and it requires masks in most public spaces. It also lays out possible penalties for violations, the first time the county has adopted enforcement measures.
Cities in Sedgwick County must agree to allow enforcement within their boundaries. The Wichita City Council voted 5-2 during a special meeting Thursday to consent to enforcement and sign an agreement with the county about what that enforcement would look like.
"The primary enforcement responsibility falls on the county," City Manager Robert Layton said. "So it’s a matter of us being in the support role."
The Wichita police and fire departments and other agencies that handle code enforcement will help identify and investigate violations, Layton said.
The city plans to set up a hotline for residents to call to report violations. Wichita Mayor Brandon Whipple said at a briefing after Thursday’s council meeting that his hope is to send a letter to businesses reported for violations.
"And that letter is, 'Hey, just so you know, we had complaints of this and that, we want you to do well, we want you to obviously not have to pay a fine, not get in trouble, not get media attention,'" Whipple said.
He thinks the possible $500 penalty could be enought of a deterrent. Whipple said the city only sent out a few warning letters to enforce its own mask mandate, which expired last month. The penalty for violations was $25.
"We were able to get compliance just with that," he said. "I think that it’s not so much the cost, but just knowing that there is a mechanism for compliance that’s important, that there’s a penalty.
"The message that this is serious, that we as a community need to take it serious, and in doing so there’s a possible fine I think also resonates."
The new, stricter health measures come as coronavirus cases spike in the area: Sedgwick County reported 411 new cases on Thursday, and the positive test rate was 23.7%, more than four times as high as it was two months ago.
"We did a really great job back in June and July of slowing the spike. We did a great job," Wesley Medical Center CEO Bill Voloch told City Council members. "I think at that point, through August, September, October, we saw us get tired of it all as a community. And we let our guard down."
Top health leaders at both Wesley and Ascension Via Christi have spoken in recent weeks about the need for more restrictions and community compliance to curb the spread, particularly as the holidays approach.
Voloch says the regional hospital has 115 COVID-19 patients, about half of whom are in the intensive care unit. He said even with the hospital’s surge plan in place, it’s "overrun with COVID."
"We are at that point where we are unable to take on much more."
He said Wesley has already had to stop accepting patients from other states. Based on the current spike, Voloch said, the hospital is projecting between 195 and 200 COVID-19 patients by the end of the year, without the resources to care for them all.
"My concern isn’t where we are today, per se. I think today we’re handling it OK. If this is the top of the spike, great," he said.
"I am very concerned about what we’re seeing and very concerned about where we will be by the end of the year given the trajectory that we’re seeing in the community."