OLATHE, Kan. — Johnson County, Kansas, is looking to crack down on businesses breaking rules aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19. In a split 4-3 vote, commissioners agreed to start fining business owners who don’t follow a new public health order.
The new order does not make it possible for any one person to be ticketed for not wearing a mask. What it does do is a create a way for the county to hold business owners accountable for blatantly disregarding the mask order, social distancing and required closing time.
The lobby outside the Johnson County commission chambers was packed with people Thursday, few wearing masks. The crowd was protesting the county’s new effort to enforce COVID-19 restrictions.
“You’re seeking to place additional cumbersome burdens on small businesses and citizens who are already financially and emotionally strained from lockdowns, restrictions and mandates,” one speaker said.
Last week, the commission approved new rules to limit, with some exceptions, mass gatherings to 50 people. Bars must close by midnight. Most businesses are required to enforce six-feet of social distancing and mask wearing.
Now, business owners who break those orders, can face a civil penalty of up to $500.
“My primary reason for doing this is because of exponential increase in number of cases and our hospitals at near capacity,” said Jim Allen, Johnson County commissioner.
But a vocal group, opposed to the fines and restrictions, spoke to commissioners for three solid hours.
“We aren’t selfish. We care about others and don’t wish illness on anyone. We also believe in personal freedoms and rights of individual businesses,” a speaker said.
“This requires voluntary compliance, okay? The people not wearing masks already, are not going to comply with this either. This is literally a waste of time,” said another speaker.
“The enforcement would be upon our employees and I think that’s an untenable position to put them in. It can put employees at risk, especially if you have a belligerent customer,” a small business owner said.
One fervent support of the county’s new restrictions expressed frustration with those unwilling to follow COVID-19 public health measures.
“Do you see that you, not wearing a mask, are selfish and infringing on my life, my liberty, my freedom and my health?” she said.
Ultimately, four of seven county commissioners approved new fines for businesses refusing to follow COVID restrictions.
“That is exactly why we need to have these restrictions so people can go into stores safely, so that businesses can stay open, so we can allow our hospitals to continue to function and not burnout healthcare workers, so our kids can go back to in-person school,” said county commissioner Janee Hanzlick.
While the measure applies to all of Johnson County, the county codes office can only enforce it in the unincorporated areas. Individual cities have to decide how, or if, they will enforce the rules.
The civil penalty order kicks in November 27, which is Black Friday. The process to ticket a business starts with a complaint from the public. Businesses then get an inspection by the codes department and are given time to correct issues. If problems are not fixed, the business owner can then pay the fine or fight it in codes court.