Easing of Kansas' social distancing rules could start May 4

Published: Apr. 26, 2020 at 10:30 PM CDT
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A lawsuit filed by two Kansas churches against Governor Laura Kelly's limits on church gatherings appears to be resolved. That was announced late Saturday night.

The motion also included hints at the path forward for opening the state back up.

Rep. Stephen Owens (R-Hesston) said, "The fact that that is now out of the way, that we can move forward knowing that our religious freedoms are protected."

While one challenge is over, another is on the horizon.

"This is a moving target that's going to be determined based not on what politicians want and focused on the science and what we learn about the disease, how it's transmitted and how it can be treated," said Rep. John Carmichael (D-Wichita).

The agreement between the churches and Kelly said it was reached because the case would likely become moot in the week ahead as the process to reopen begins.

It's the direction Owens wants to see the state head.

"As a legislature, I'm getting hundreds of calls and emails every week from people that just want to be able to go back to work," said Owens. "They realize there's some risk, they are willing to do whatever they need to and take whatever precautions they need to, but people simply want the ability to take care of their families."

The court document didn't include detailed specifics for the path forward but sketches out what to expect.

First, the executive order placing limits on public gatherings, which also impacts churches, is scheduled to expire May 1, but will be extended for two additional days. That will allow it to coincide with the end of the statewide stay at home order May 3.

The next step would be a new executive order to start May 4 that would begin the process of reopening the state, while easing the public gathering orders. It added, "As of now, those restrictions will not prohibit gatherings in which individuals can consistently maintain a 6-foot distance and follow other safety protocols (such as disinfecting surfaces, etc.)."

These measures will be dependent on the COVID-19 trends seen in Kansas.

"I actually got to hear that Friday at about 3:30. She [Governor Kelly] does a weekly call which is very beneficial with all elected officials on a county, state, city level, and she actually announced then that her intention was then to begin lifting some of those things," said Rep. Owens. "Of course, it was contingent on the trends continuing the way they have been trending, but assuming that was the case, it was really great to hear some optimism in her voice and some plans."

Rep. Carmichael said, "At her conference with state leaders, she was indicating that we were making progress, but I did not think we made progress to the point that we may be able to have public meetings with only six-foot distance, but the Governor has always said that she will follow the recommendation of the scientists."

It will not just be the state laying out the rules for how to reopen; it will also up be to counties to decide the steps they feel are necessary.

"We certainly need a regional approach to reopening and phasing," said Owens. "Allowing individual counties to make those best decisions on a local level, absolutely the way for it to happen."

"It looks to me like the governor looks to make room for counties and county health officers to tailor their restrictions and their return to normalcy depending on their conditions there," said Carmichael.

Moving forward with those plans, Carmichael cautions need to be done delicately.

"We have to do this carefully. If we go too quickly, we could find ourselves with a rebound phenomenon, and if that happens, we could lose all the progress that we made, and we'll have to start from scratch again," said Rep. Carmichael.

He points to the lack of testing ability in the state as one of the critical obstacles Kelly addresses to reopen the state.

Owens said he's more optimistic the right balance can be reached.

"It's the balance of lives versus livelihood and the concerns that go along with both," said Owens. "While lives are absolutely of utmost importance, they're not separate in that you can only think about lives or livelihoods. You can always put some emphasis and focus on both."

The motion still needs to be approved by a judge. It said attorneys for the two churches would be provided Kelly's executive orders dealing with limits on gatherings and reopening the state before they go into effect. If they view them as unconstitutional, the lawsuit could resume.

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