Finney County will partially reopen next week, despite county health officials’ recommendations to the contrary.
Finney County Commissioners – acting as the county’s board of health Friday – voted 4 to 1 to move into phase one of Gov. Laura Kelly’s reopening plan, meaning some small businesses will be allowed to reopen after the county’s stay-at-home order expires on May 10.
Phase one, which allows previously nonessential retailers to reopen, will remain in effect in Finney County until May 22, at which time commissioners will have determined - based on the COVID-19 situation - whether the county can continue opening or if stay-at-home restrictions are necessary.
The decision came as Finney County reported 861 confirmed COVID-19 cases, including 11 hospitalizations and four deaths.
Based on that and other data presented to commissioners Friday, Finney County Health Department Director and Public Health Officer Colleen Drees and Medical Director Dr. Lindsay Byrnes each recommended the commission extend the county’s emergency public health order - which directed people to stay home through May 10 to help slow the rate of community spread of COVID-19 - for one to two more weeks.
Several commissioners, however, felt that the economic wellbeing of their constituents outweighed those recommendations.
Commissioners Duane Drees and Dave Jones said 100 percent of the people they had spoken to by phone or email in the past 10 days were in favor of reopening.
“And what I’ve noticed the last 10 days is people are not following these stay at home orders,” Duane Drees said. “I do not believe the mandatory order is working and therefore I’m adamant rather about letting our small businesses downtown survive.”
Commissioners Larry Jones and Lon Pishny also expressed concern that smaller businesses might be forced into bankruptcy if they were to remain closed.
Dave Jones said Ford and Seward Counties, which each have a greater number of confirmed cases than Finney County, are already operating under phase one of Kelly’s plan.
“So to me, what my preference would be and what I’m hearing from just dozens of people who light up my email account and my telephone, they want to see the small businesses be allowed to reopen and spread out those people that are congregating at the Walmart and Home Depot that I referenced,” he said.
In response, Byrnes said she only makes recommendations to Finney County and that her recommendation is to adhere to guidelines as set forth by the CDC and epidemiologists.
“It is not to be swayed by opinions or emails or threats. It's supposed to be a medical recommendation,” Byrnes said. “Now, I completely agree. I think that we need to have actually more regulation about physical distancing among people, but at this time, it is my role to make a recommendation to you based on the data and that's where that's coming from - without influence or prejudice.”
Byrnes was also quick to correct Pishny after he stated that COVID-19 is an immune system issue and that taking vitamin A, D and C and getting exposure to at least 20 minutes of sunlight per day were ways to combat the virus.
“Your characterization of the medical condition and the immune system is flat out wrong sir – flat out wrong,” Byrnes said. “And I would challenge you to read clinical evidence and abstain from spreading anecdotal evidence.”
Pishny also expressed his displeasure at a local business that required its patrons to wear masks.
“I chose to go shop somewhere else because I didn't want to wear a mask,” Pishny said.
Commissioner Bill Clifford, the lone vote against reopening Finney County, said there is potential for more COVID-19 fatalities.
“I just would like my fellow commissioners and public to understand – given our numbers of positives, I’m expecting 20 to 30 deaths in Finney County,” Clifford said. “So opening up, looking at the numbers and deciding whether to close back (up) again as one of the alternatives - that’s one I have trouble supporting right now, given the medical data.”
Clifford made a motion to extend the stay-at-home order through May 17, but it was not seconded.
“I would like to emphasize to the public and these businesses that if we do vote to open, it’s incumbent upon them to enforce those recommendations of masks and the physical separation and protecting the public,” Clifford said. “I think if we're going to take a step, this citizenry needs to respond in kind to help us to the next phase.”
Duane Drees agreed.
“If this motion passes, it is highly recommended by the commission to be very clear that businesses use common sense and follow guidelines that are updated on a regular basis from economic development,” he said, adding that individuals who wish to stay home and socially distance should feel free to do so, as well.
There was a question, however, to the validity of the commission’s motion moving the county into phase one because it was initially scheduled to be in effect through May 18, which was seconded, but an amendment to change that date to May 22 was not seconded.
HPPR was unable to confirm, as of press time, whether the motion was valid.
Commissioners will once again meet as the board of health on May 18, at which point county health officials will provide updated COVID-19 data, which will be used to determine whether the county can move into phase two of Kelly’s reopening plan, or if further restrictions are needed.
Under phase one, bars and nightclubs, casinos, fitness centers and gyms, and personal service businesses like hair salons and tattoo parlors will not be allowed to open. Neither will community centers, large entertainment venues, fairs, festivals, parades, graduations, public swimming pools, sports facilities or camps.