TOPEKA, Kan. – Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly said Tuesday that she doesn’t plan to have the state health department use its power to manage disease outbreaks by shutting down businesses or imposing other restrictions in local coronavirus hot spots.
The Democratic governor’s statement went further than a public promise she made last month to top Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature not to issue orders to close businesses statewide, as she did in the spring. She said that although the state will work with local officials in areas with big outbreaks to help them check the spread of the virus, it won’t dictate the steps they’ll take.
Kelly and Republican lawmakers were at odds for weeks over her handling of the pandemic, with GOP leaders preferring to let local officials set the rules for businesses, public gatherings and the reopening of K-12 schools. The Legislature forced her to accept local control of most of those decisions, and Kelly said Tuesday during a Statehouse news conference that she wants to keep businesses open.
“A much more effective way is to have the local buy-in,” Kelly said. “The better way to do it rather than using the hammer is to continue to work closely with local officials, local public health officials.”
As of Monday, Kansas had had nearly 68,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 771 deaths from the disease since the start of the pandemic, according to the state Department of Health and Environment.
Kansas law gives the state health department’s top administrator the authority to issue orders “as may be medically necessary and reasonable” to control “diseases injurious to the public health,” including by quarantining individuals. The health department’s head, Dr. Lee Norman, said last week that Kansas was “losing the battle” to check the coronavirus.
The governor offered a more optimistic assessment, saying Kansas can slow the virus, just as it appeared to do from late May to mid-June, before the average number of new daily cases began rising again, eventually to record levels.
“I’m not going to micromanage the counties,” Kelly said.
Kelly kept a statewide stay-at-home order this spring that stayed in effect for five weeks, then set statewide restrictions on businesses and public gatherings for another month, through Memorial Day in May. She also issued a statewide order in July requiring people to wear masks in public, though state law allowed counties to opt out.
Meanwhile, in Lawrence, the public school district modified its plans to move from online classes to having students attend in person part of the week because of concerns expressed by teachers and other staff.
The district plans to have its high school students attend in-person classes only one day a week, instead of the two days that were initially planned, the Lawrence Journal-World reported. Students in lower grades will have in-person classes two days a week, but the school board decided late Monday to delay that until Nov. 9 for elementary schools.