TOPEKA, Kan. – Public health officials in two of Kansas’ most populous counties on Thursday tightened restrictions on gatherings, and public schools in the state’s capital city scrapped at least two weeks of in-person classes in favor online learning amid a statewide surge in coronavirus cases.
In Shawnee County, home to the state capital of Topeka, gatherings will be limited to 10 people whether they are held indoors or outdoors, starting Friday. An order from Dr. Gianfranco Pezzino, the county’s health officer, dropped the limits from 25 for indoor gatherings and 45 for outdoor gatherings, said bars and restaurants that can hold 100 or more people must operate at 50% of their capacities, and said bars must close at 11 p.m. every day, rather than remaining open until midnight four nights a week.
The limit on gatherings also will drop Friday to 15 from 45 in neighboring Douglas County, home to the main University of Kansas campus under an order issued by the county health officer, Dr. Thomas Marcellino.
With their orders, at least seven of the state’s 105 counties have issued more restrictive rules this week. Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly issued an order requiring people statewide to wear masks in public, but state law allows counties to opt out, and most still have. Shawnee County is one of fewer than 30 with a mask mandate.
“The exponential rise in cases has been due to both small and large gatherings across the board,” said Craig Barnes, a Shawnee County Health Department spokesman. “We’re trying to, with this order, minimize the opportunities in the areas where people can congregate in small settings, especially indoor small settings.”
Kansas had a record daily average of 2,430 new confirmed and probable cases during the seven days that ended Wednesday, according state Department of Health and Environment data. The state also averaged a record 38 new COVID-19-related hospitalizations per day during that period, along with 18 new deaths a day.
Kansas has had more than 109,000 coronavirus cases, 4,200 hospitalizations and 1,200 deaths since the pandemic reached the state in early March, according to the health department.
The Topeka public school district, with about 13,000 students and 2,400 staff, announced that it would suspend in-person classes for at least two weeks, starting Monday. The district, one of the largest in the state, had students splitting four days a week between in-person and online classes, with online classes Wednesdays.
The district has reported 36 students and 25 staff members testing positive for coronavirus, but officials said the bigger issue is others being forced to quarantine because of potential exposures to the virus outside school. While some teachers can cover others’ classes, it cuts into their planning time, and it’s becoming harder to find outside substitutes because of the pandemic, said Rebecca Morrisey, Topeka High School’s principal.
“Most of our subs tend to be retired, and they have – many of them – been a little bit apprehensive about coming into the buildings,” she said. “It is a real challenge to cover classes.”
Public health officials blame the big surge in coronavirus cases on people being lax about wearing masks in public and still attending gatherings, including private family ones, such as birthday parties, baby showers and even informal get-togethers. They’re worried that the state will see an even larger spike in cases after Thanksgiving.
The chairman of the Republican Party in Johnson County, the state’s most populous county, confirmed in a Facebook post Thursday that at least one person attending its election night victory party tested positive for coronavirus. Public health officials have expressed concerns about the possibility of an outbreak from a similar GOP election night party in Topeka, attended by about 100 people, including U.S. Sen.-elect Roger Marshall.
Meanwhile, University of Kansas Health System doctors said during a morning video briefing that they’re working to see which patients can safely delay surgeries, KMBC-TV reports. Hospitals in other parts of the state are stressed as well, most notably in south-central Kansas, which is home to the state’s largest city, Wichita.
In Finney County, in southwestern Kansas, the county seat of Garden City approved a mask mandate Wednesday, but the county has no plans to follow suit, KWCH-TV reported. Finney County Commission Chairman Duane Drees said in a statement Thursday that the city’s decision was “appropriate and reasonable,” but county commissioners believe in letting those more-local officials make such decisions.