Kansas counties shouldn’t feel push to ease coronavirus restrictions, Gov. Kelly says

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Gov. Laura Kelly

TOPEKA, Kan.  — Kansas counties “shouldn’t feel pressure” to loosen restrictions if they aren’t seeing a decline in new coronavirus cases or new hospitalizations, Gov. Laura Kelly said Monday.

Kelly said she’s feeling hopeful because Kansas is making enough progress in containing the novel coronavirus for most of the state’s 105 counties to loosen restrictions further.

Her office and the state Department of Health and Environment are advising local officials that as of Monday they can allow mass gatherings of up to 45 people, permit non-essential travel and open swimming pools and summer camps.

But she and Dr. Lee Norman, the health department’s top administrator, acknowledged there are counties not seeing a drop in new cases and hospitalizations or are likely to see declines halt. Norman listed three of the state’s four most populous counties — Sedgwick, Shawnee and Wyandotte — as examples.

The state health department reported Monday that Kansas saw coronavirus cases increase 2.5% from Friday, up 257 to a total of 10,650 since the pandemic reached the state in early March.

The three counties Norman mentioned, plus Johnson County, the state’s most populous county, together accounted for 55% of the new cases since last week.

“Counties that have plateaued or that are trending in the wrong direction should’t feel pressure,” Kelly said, adding that they’re encouraged to keep current restrictions in place “until they see improvement.”

The Democratic governor imposed a statewide stay-at-home order from March 30 through May 3, then mandated a phased reopening of the state’s economy.

However, she converted her requirements into guidelines for local officials on May 26, lifting statewide restrictions in favor of letting counties set their own rules.

Her action was a major concession to the Republican-controlled Legislature after many GOP members had complained for weeks that Kelly was moving too slowly to reopen the economy.

The governor also agreed to some limits on her power to direct the state’s response to the pandemic to help persuade lawmakers to extend a state of emergency until at least Sept. 15.

Kelly signed a bill approved by lawmakers last week. It limits Kelly’s power to close businesses statewide again and gives legislative leaders some oversight of the pandemic response, including how the state will spend $1.25 billion in federal relief funds. The legislation is expected to take effect later this week.

As of Monday, 62% of the state’s 236 reported COVID-19-related deaths were in Johnson and Wyandotte counties in the Kansas City area, the state’s first virus hot spot. Both counties are seeing cases increase faster than in the state as a whole.

The state health department said Wyandotte County had 52 new cases since Friday, an increase of 3.4%, to make the total 1,560, and the county is reporting 75 COVID-19-related deaths.

Johnson County saw another 38 cases since Friday, to bring its total to 977 for an increase of 4%, with a total of 71 deaths since the pandemic began.

Sedgwick County, home to the state’s largest city of Wichita, saw a 5.8% jump in cases, up 36 to 660. It is reporting 22 deaths.

Shawnee County, home to the state capital of Topeka, had 15 more cases since Friday, an increase of 4.1% to 384 total. It reported seven deaths.

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