Kansas County Chooses Not to Observe Covid ‘Emergency’

By Dion Lefler and Michael Stavola | March 18, 2021

SEDAN, Kan. (AP) — Greetings from Chautauqua, the only county in Kansas where COVID-19 isn’t an emergency.

This bucolic and remote county, nestled on the Oklahoma border 100 highway miles southeast of Wichita, is the only place in Kansas that isn’t under a COVID disaster emergency declaration, according to the Kansas Association of Counties.

“We didn’t feel like we needed it,” said Rodney Shaw, who serves on the three-member County Commission that doubles as the Board of Public Health.

If you wear a mask in Sedan, the Chautauqua County seat, you might as well hang a sign around your neck saying “Not From Around Here.”

Coming here is like stepping back into 2019, those halcyon days before a global contagion that would kill an estimated 2.6 million people, including more than 527,000 Americans, The Wichita Eagle reports.

All the businesses in town are open whenever they think they can make money. Banners in front of the Pizza Hut proudly proclaim “WE’RE OPEN FOR DINE-IN.”

If you want to go to a movie, just go. The Gregg Theater’s been open for months and you can see anything you want as long as it’s the new “Tom and Jerry” flick. Signs at the theater warn not to bring in outside food and drink, but there’s nothing in sight about masks or social distancing.

“It’s never that crowded, so we can spread out pretty good,” said Donald Bullock, as he enjoyed a leisurely morning coffee and donuts with his mother and sister at Aunt B’s, the coffee bar and ice cream shop on Main Street.

It’s been that way pretty much throughout the pandemic.

“We kept business going just like it was,” Shaw said. “We never had a mask mandate.”

Chautauqua County didn’t escape the pandemic, but it never hit as hard as it did in a lot of Kansas counties.

There have been 263 cases of COVID here out of a total population of about 3,250.

Six have died.

Overall, Chautauqua County’s case rate is 80.3 infections per 1,000 residents, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

For comparison, it’s more than the 68.4 case rate in Douglas County, which has been notably aggressive in fighting COVID spread. It’s less than the 105 rate in Sedgwick County, where anti-COVID restrictions have been on-again-off-again.

In the year since the pandemic started, Chautauqua County has only been in a formal state of emergency for a total of three seven-day periods _ and only when the declaration was required to obtain resources and supplies from higher levels of government.

In two cases, “we had some workers that live in town that spoke a different language, we needed some interpreters to help with that, so we had to get some help from the state,” Shaw said.

In December, the county declared an emergency just long enough to replenish COVID testing supplies from state stockpiles.

Commission Chairman Parker Massey said he sees the ongoing emergency declarations in Kansas’ other 104 counties as an effort to grab government cash that became available during the pandemic.

“The need to declare a constant state of disaster had to do with funding and not particularly that we had a disaster,” he said. “To me that felt dishonest and I wasn’t in favor of doing so for what’s been effectively called `free cheese.’

“We’ve handled the COVID situation in Chautauqua County based on what’s going on in Chautauqua County and not what other counties were doing, not what the state was doing.”

Declarations or not, Chautauqua County has gotten its share of the free cheese.

Last year, the county got $660,000 from the SPARK program, the state’s distribution of CARES Act funding from the federal government. Last week it got another $116,000 from a state program called ELC, for Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity.

That money will go to pay salaries and benefits for the county’s two registered nurses, an allowable use, Health Administrator Misti Byers told the commissioners.

“It says you can use it for electronic health records and computers, but we don’t need any more (of that),” she said.

Gov. Laura Kelly said she decided not to hold back the grants because of the county’s lack of an emergency declaration.

“We just didn’t choose to punish them,” Kelly said. “It’s as simple as that. While I wish that they would have followed the mandates, ultimately most (counties) did.

“I believe we had 80 counties and many cities bringing in some of those mandates on their own, and that’s good. That’s what they should have done. But we’re not going to punish the citizens of different counties because of the decisions their elected leaders made.”

Chautauqua County, not exactly a hub of commerce even under ordinary circumstances, actually has added businesses since COVID started, commissioners said.

“We had four or five open, right during the pandemic,” Shaw said “Right in the midstream, we had three or four businesses open here.”

One of them has since closed, though that was more a matter of too many restaurants for too few people than it was coronavirus concern, Shaw said.

“We never had any cases until 60-90 days ago, is when our cases spiked, and then since then everything’s come down, so we just had one small spike and never felt like we needed (an ongoing) declaration,” Shaw said.

Bullock said he caught the coronavirus during the November spike. His case was mild, mostly headaches and a temporary loss of taste and smell.

He’s a railroad worker who frequently travels. Last year, he hit Michigan, Oregon, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas and Mexico.

“I’ve seen some places where it’s not bad and I’ve seen some places where you couldn’t even get into the hospital,” he said.

But he contact traces his own case to the railyard in Independence, in the next county east of Chautauqua.

“I got it from the guys there,” he said.

His mother, Karen Buhler, is a retired computer programmer who used to work at the Mrs. Burden’s Gourmet Candy factory that used to be in Sedan.

She said the COVID threat has brought the townspeople together, rather than isolating them in coronavirus hermitage.

“People are helping people,” she said. “They just did a big (food) giveaway over at the grocery store.”

At the dawn of the pandemic last year, when masks were scarce, townspeople donated cloth and a local sewing circle made enough masks for everyone who wanted them, she said.

One of a tiny minority still wearing a mask is retired schoolteacher Carol Elmore, who had one on when she picked up her mail at the Post Office last week.

She said her husband insisted. “We’re both in our 80s and he didn’t want me to take a chance of catching it.”

The commission meets in the county courthouse in an office about as big as the family room of a fair-sized home.

Bottles of hand sanitizer are placed around the room and a sign on the wall encourages social distancing. But with just two short rows of pew seating, it’s next to impossible to get six feet of separation if there are more than four or five people in attendance.

At last week’s meeting, only two people wore masks. Both were out-of-towners.

The highlight was a visit from Rep. Doug Blex, R-Independence and Chautauqua County’s primary conduit to state government in Topeka.

In an impromptu report to the commission, Blex projected the Legislature will pass a permanent version of a temporary law made last year to strip the governor and local health officers of most of their pandemic emergency powers.

“Any governor now will not be able to close a business if the county commissioners are opposed to it,” Blex said. “That’s a good thing for the local people. We can’t basically shut you down. The county commissioners will be able to override the local health officials, just like you were.

“Now, no disrespect for the local health, but they’re on a singular focus and you guys have to balance the thing just like I do, with economics, health issues and the long view,” Blex said.

Massey couldn’t agree more.

“Our job as commissioner is not a single mandate on health,” he said. “It’s do these mandates and do these restrictions violate people’s personal liberties? That’s a thing we have to take into consideration.”

The only shutdowns in Chautauqua County were either by choice or ordered by higher powers.

“The only thing that was really shut down was the beauticians and barber shops,” Shaw said. Massey quickly interjected “That was through the state and that was beyond our say.”

“I hope going forward that we’ve all learned how to handle this a little better and we don’t cause a manufactured crisis,” Massey added. “I understand nobody knew what to do in the beginning. I think that we have a handle on it now.”

The town’s library was closed for about two months _ also not by local choice.

The Sedan library relies on the Southeast Kansas Library Association for a variety of services and it wasn’t practical to stay open with the association and all its other libraries on COVID hiatus, said Librarian Kayla Ford.

“We just took that time and I just shampooed and deep-cleaned everything,” Ford said.

As Wichita’s libraries are moving to a limited “grab and go” service _ where patrons can browse the shelves but not stick around to read, drink coffee and socialize _ the Sedan library has just dropped its recommendation that people wear masks while inside, the last vestige of its COVID protection practices.

“We just took the sign down Saturday,” Ford said. “A lot of people around here have gotten their (vaccine) shots and people feel more comfortable. We’ll see how it goes.’

About the photo: The Chautauqua County Commission and staff meet in a small room, unmasked, on Monday, March 8, 2021, in Sedan, Kan. This bucolic and remote county, nestled on the Oklahoma border 100 highway miles southeast of Wichita, is the only place in Kansas that isn’t under a COVID disaster emergency declaration, according to the Kansas Association of Counties. (Dion Lefler/The Wichita Eagle via AP)

About Dion Lefler and Michael Stavola

Lefler and Stavola wrote this for the Wichita Eagle.

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