COVID-19 in Kansas City: These major stories defined the pandemic in the metro

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A year has passed since the Big 12 Basketball tournament was canceled, marking the first major effect of the long-lasting coronavirus pandemic on the Kansas City metro.

March 11 shocked the KC area and beyond as sports began shutting down. As cases rose and people panic-bought toilet paper, few could grasp the actuality of the situation – an ongoing threat that would last the rest of the year and beyond.

At that point, the travel industry was already suffering its worst shock since 9/11. The Trump administration had issued a “do not travel” advisory for China on Jan. 31. Major airlines canceled flights soon after, and travel to and from several other countries dropped significantly.

Health agencies in the U.S. had also begun reporting several deaths as a direct result of COVID-19, the disease brought on by SARS-CoV-2, a new coronavirus.

Nevertheless, Kansas City metro health agencies said they were ready to handle coronavirus outbreaks. Public health experts believed the risk in the area was low.

That all changed when leaders first announced fans would no longer be able to attend the Big 12 Basketball Tournament in Kansas City after March 11. Cancellation came shortly after, marking one of the first major effects the pandemic would have in the metro.

Sports upended in a day

Around 3:30 p.m. on March 11, 2020, NCAA President Mark Emmert announced that the March Madness NCAA Division I basketball tournament games would be closed to fans due to coronavirus concerns. Hours later, Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby announced that spectators would be banned from tournament games in Kansas City after the evening games concluded.

The NBA suspended their season indefinitely on March 11 shortly after 8 p.m. The decision came after many teams started considering games without fans, and Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert received a positive result on a preliminary coronavirus test.

Late the next morning, the Big 12, Big 10, SEC and ACC all canceled the remainder of their tournaments. Major League Soccer suspended its season around the same time that morning. By midday, the National Hockey League paused its season indefinitely, Major League Baseball canceled Spring Training, the Xtreme Football League canceled its remaining season and NASCAR postponed races.

Many leagues would later create plans to play while preventing the spread of COVID-19. The NFL was the only national sports league to have a full regular season, though many stadiums did not allow fans. Kansas City allowed pod seating at 22% capacity at Arrowhead.

Stay-at-home orders begin, deaths rise

On March 21, 2020, leaders in Kansas City metro’s most immediate municipalities announced the first stay-at-home orders, set to go into effect on the 24th and last for a month. During that time, residents were directed to avoid all non-essential travel. Both Missouri and Kansas issued statewide restrictions on gatherings.

The controversial orders closed the doors on all non-essential businesses, including the hospitality, food, entertainment and event industries. Suffering travel industries, including rideshare companies, took an even bigger hit as movement all but grinded to a halt.

Meanwhile confirmed coronavirus-related deaths in the United States skyrocketed. Johns Hopkins University reported U.S. deaths doubled in one day on March 28. By the end of March, both Missouri and Kansas reported hundreds of cases and several deaths.

Long-term care facilities came under scrutiny nationwide, as thousands of vulnerable residents nationwide died in mass coronavirus outbreaks. In Kansas City, Kan., 27 residents at one facility died and 119 people got sick, prompting a wrongful death lawsuit.

Unified approach cracks

What began as local municipalities working together with identical or similar health restriction orders soon fell apart as demand to reopen increased.

Clay County became the first municipality to shorten its stay-at-home order, and North Kansas City became the first city to follow suit, while other governments stuck to their own plans.

After a small stay-at-home extension, Kansas City announced its 10/10/10 rule for May 6, focused on reopening at limited capacity. However, Wyandotte and Johnson counties extended their orders through May 10.

At the state level, Gov. Mike Parson announced Missouri’s reopening plan, allowing all businesses to open their doors on May 4. Across state lines, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly announced a limited plan, keeping stay-at-home orders on bars, gyms, theaters, hair and nail shops.

Amid the confusion, FOX4 built a survey tool just to help people keep track of which orders affected them as state and local orders overlapped.

Mask mandates and misinformation

Kansas City announced a mask mandate effective Monday, June 29. Although many businesses, like gyms and restaurants, had reopened at the time, health officials worried that few people were wearing masks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention highly recommended mask wearing.

Missouri refrained from a statewide mask mandate, though leadership encouraged mask wearing. Kansas enacted a mask mandate, but then legislators allowed counties to opt out.

Meanwhile, doctors worked to dispel myths about masks and the coronavirus as rumors circulated on social media and beyond. One insisted that the coronavirus could go through an N-95 mask, which a Kansas City doctor refuted.

In July, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube deleted a viral video, which had been shared by former President Donald Trump, which made false coronavirus claims. In the video, a group of people incorrectly said “you don’t need masks” to prevent spread of the coronavirus and that some failed treatments were actually virus cures.

Schools struggle, cases rise

As districts planned for the fall semester, in-person learning and fall sports came under serious question. Each district began releasing plans during the summer months as parents braced for more uncertainty.

Within the complicated web of state boards, local health departments and individual districts, FOX4 created a tool to track fall semester reopening plans for districts across the metro.

After states canceled in-person schooling during the onset of the pandemic, many local parents began advocating for school sports and onsite learning. Advocating turned into protesting and rallying, as school boards grappled with what to do.

As the school year stretched into October, cases began to noticeably rise, first in the heartland and then nationwide. As the nation broke records on new daily cases, some states rose by more than 100% within a week. Missouri’s positivity rate spiked to more than 20%.

Case fatality rates dropped steadily over time. As case rates increased dramatically however, death totals also increased. December became Kansas City’s deadliest month.

Vaccines offer hope

On July 2, the U.S. announced Operation Warp Speed, a program dedicated to accelerating the timeline of vaccine development. Creating an effective and safe vaccine, what experts said often takes five or ten years, would be attempted by the end of 2020.

On Dec. 11, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first coronavirus vaccine, a two-shot inoculation from New York-based Pfizer and German-based BioNTech. Moderna’s vaccine followed shortly after.

Vaccine distribution lagged for for much of the U.S., including Kansas City. Twenty days after the first vaccine was approved, many metro counties still hadn’t received any doses. Kansas and Missouri both ranked last in the United States at one point in vaccinating their residents. Differing plans, including when to vaccinate teachers, also added to residents’ frustrations.

With the approval of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and more avenues for distribution however, inoculation rates have increased. The Biden administration has claimed more than 2 million U.S. citizens are getting vaccinated every day.

Cases have also dropped. Kansas City has reached positivity rates not seen in months, reaching far below 5% on average.

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