Kansas governor signs rewrite of pandemic management laws

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TOPEKA, Kan. — Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly on Wednesday signed legislation rewriting Kansas laws for managing the coronavirus pandemic and future emergencies even though she believes it could hinder disaster response efforts.

Kelly’s action on the measure approved last week by the Republican-controlled Legislature came only hours after the county commission in the state’s second-most populous county ended all remaining COVID-19 restrictions. Sedgwick County commissioners had said the measure Kelly signed essentially strips them of their power to impose restrictions by making it likely that the county would lose lawsuits from residents who feel aggrieved.

The Legislature also gave final approval Wednesday to a bill that would require all public schools to offer all students full-time, in-person classes by March 31, through the end of the current school year. It’s largely symbolic because only a handful of the state’s 286 local school districts didn’t plan to have a majority of students returning full-time to their buildings by then, according to the State Department of Education.

Republican lawmakers have criticized Kelly throughout the pandemic. They have suggested she overreacted by imposing a statewide stay-at-home order for five weeks last spring and closing all K-12 buildings from mid-March 2020 until the end of that semester.

They forced her last year to accept county control over mask mandates and restrictions on businesses and public gatherings to keep a state of emergency in effect. The measure Kelly signed Wednesday takes effect within a week and extends that state of emergency until May 28, instead of expiring March 31— a point she cited in a statement announcing her action.

“This bipartisan compromise will extend the state of disaster emergency that allows us to provide hospitals with PPE, support food banks and pantries, and otherwise respond to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Kelly said.

Kelly added that parts of the measure “could complicate our emergency response efforts,” without being more specific in her statement.

The changes apply both to the coronavirus pandemic and to future emergencies. The measure preserves the control granted to counties last year over restrictions, though it prevents appointed local health officers from imposing the rules, leaving decisions to elected county commissioners.

Kelly signed the measure as Kansas faced a glitch in its efforts to distribute COVID-19 vaccines more broadly. The state health department said problems with production of a single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine will result in Kansas getting only 16,500 doses next week, instead of the 100,000 initially expected.

Meanwhile, the Sedgwick County Commission voted 3-2 along party lines to end the mask mandate and other restrictions, with Republicans backing the move and Democrats opposing it, The Wichita Eagle reports.

Commissioners said earlier this week that the measure signed by Kelly tips court challenges against restrictions in favor of the challengers while potentially clogging the courts with cases by requiring each case to be heard within 72 hours.

The push to require all schools to offer in-person classes came from state Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican. GOP lawmakers said children have suffered academically and emotionally in online classes.

Many Democrats decried taking the decision away from local school boards, but Kelly’s office indicated that she would sign it. Governor spokesperson Lauren Fitzgerald said its mandate was possible because of a push launched by Kelly last month to ensure that any teacher wanting inoculations got them.

The measure would apply only to the current school year. The emergency management changes Kelly signed into law leave future decisions on closing K-12 buildings during emergencies or after disasters to local school boards.

The Senate approved the schools reopening bill 28-11, with no Democrats voting for it, after the House passed it Tuesday.

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