Gov. Laura Kelly tracks down 500,000 new test kits and prepares to temporarily renew the state’s disaster declaration and a set of executive orders; businesses in Lindsborg and Topeka contemplate reopening; Kansas reporting 125 deaths and 3,736 cases
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TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly said Wednesday the state’s coronavirus disaster declaration would be renewed through May 14 and that a slate of executive orders tied to COVID-19 would remain in place until most decisions about stay-at-home directives and other health mandates shift May 4 to county officials.
Kelly said 500,000 testing kits for COVID-19 had been acquired overseas and the first shipment of 5,000 units cleared customs. The state is scheduled to receive 10,000 testing kits each week until the order is filled, she said.
The governor said the federal government promised 50,000 units would be sent during the next two weeks to raise testing capacity in Kansas, which has had among the lowest per-capita rate in the nation.
"There is no question that expanded testing for COVID-19 is the key to reopening the state and rebuilding our economy," Kelly said. "There is no doubt many parts of the state need stepped-up capability to test Kansans who have symptoms."
She also said the state acquired FDA-approved equipment to sanitize N95 masks and make them available for reuse by health care workers originally assigned the mask. It is possible masks can be recycled up to 20 times if properly sanitized, but the governor said she wouldn’t stop working to acquire new masks.
The overall statewide disaster declaration for Kansas is required to receive federal aid. It is due to expire May 1, and the governor said she would extend it until May 14. The State Finance Council, which includes the governor and top legislative leaders, could vote to lengthen it until June 13. At that point, the Legislature would have to convene to add more time to the emergency declaration.
Recasting the statewide disaster declaration requires the governor to also reaffirm a collection of coronavirus executive orders. Those will be formally renewed until May 4, she said. That decision can be reviewed by the Legislative Coordinating Council, which is a bipartisan group of House and Senate members.
Kelly said details about her strategy for reopening the Kansas economy would be revealed at 6:30 p.m. Thursday on a televised broadcast.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment said the state had 55 clusters of COVID-19. The agency said testing had shown there were 3,738 cases and 125 deaths in Kansas linked to the virus. Cases have been confirmed in 78 of the state’s 105 counties.
On Wednesday, the Kansas Department of Corrections revealed a staff member at Kansas Juvenile Correctional Facility in Topeka tested positive for COVID-19. It was the fourth KDOC facility with a confirmed case.
Gift shop reality
Hemslojd owner Corey Peterson said the Lindsborg gift shop’s sales of handicrafts began slipping March 10 as reality of a virus born more than 7,000 miles away began to emerge in a central Kansas community anchored by Swedish heritage.
The state’s first fatality followed two days later in Wyandotte County, which became the epicenter of the pandemic in Kansas. About two weeks later, Gov. Laura Kelly issued an order limiting mass gatherings and imposed a statewide stay-at-home order for non-essential personnel. It was a savage blow to commercial activity statewide and staggered the gift shop at 201 N. Main St. in the tourism-reliant city known as "Little Sweden, USA."
The in-store retail part of Hemslojd was closed March 27.
"The impact was immediate," Peterson said. "My first reaction as a small retail business owner to the pandemic and the orders being given was, ’Is this really happening?’ It was clear this could be catastrophic to our business and community."
"As you may expect, sales dropped to nothing in our gift shop. An o-fer April smarts."
Peterson said May typically delivered bigger sales at Hemslojd because folks came to town for graduation ceremonies at Bethany College and the high schools. Those joyous gatherings of family and friends won’t happen this spring, even if the governor announces Thursday a strategy for lifting a stay-at-home order in early May.
"June and July will be even more critical to us, as we normally enjoy summer travelers, especially during our town’s Swedish-themed Midsummer’s Festival in mid-June," Peterson said.
A pair of Kansas Chamber surveys of member businesses — the first March 29 to April 7 and the second April 16 to April 18 — captured a significant shift in thinking about restraint of Kansas economic activity as COVID-19’s imprint on the state evolved.
Initially, the survey showed 20% were convinced the state went too far in restricting commerce and 10% concluded the state didn’t do enough to control the virus. By the time the second survey surfaced, 38% were of the opinion the state overreached and 1% were clinging to the belief the state must do more.
Alan Cobb, president and CEO of the Kansas Chamber, said opinion polling shouldn’t be viewed as a replacement for health data or an attempt to minimize steps taken at different levels of government to minimize infection from COVID-19.
"We believe it is important for elected leaders and decision makers to understand the point of view of those on the front line of the economy," Cobb said.
The surveys revealed many companies allowed employees to work from home, but 23% of businesses authorized layoffs and 22% reduced employee hours. In addition, 64% said it would take a minimum of six months for their businesses to return to normal.
The questioning of chamber members revealed four of five wanted the economy reopened no later than early May. Nearly 90% would welcome a tiered approach to the reversals so parts of the state where the coronavirus wasn’t pervasive or where counties were further ahead on the down slope reopened sooner than areas hit hardest.
"I talk every day with Kansas business leaders across the state that are taking extra precautions to protect the health and safety of their workers and customers to ensure we don't return to the exponential spread of this virus we once experienced," Cobb said.
The Iron Rail
Topeka businessman Brent Boles, a partner in Iron Rail Brewery, said the mid-March imposition of restrictions on businesses by the Shawnee County Health Department put an end to in-store dining. Iron Rail pivoted to carryout and delivery to blunt erosion of revenue, but 70% of the brewery’s base business evaporated in the forced slowdown.
The key question: Once stay-at-home orders are withdrawn, what will people do?
"That’s to be determined," Boles said. "Consumer behavior will change."
He said the hope was that customers would choose to affirm their appreciation for local businesses. When folks walk through the doors of Iron Rail, he said, they would notice differences. A full-time staff member will be assigned to do nothing other than sanitize surfaces likely to come in contact with people.
"We have to get back to work safely," he said.
David Toland, secretary of the Kansas Department of Commerce, said COVID-19 left its mark in urban, rural and suburban areas of the state. It damaged agriculture, manufacturing and service sectors of the economy, he said.
"It happened with unprecedented speed," Toland said. "The pace of this has been incredible. Like nothing our state or our country has ever seen before."
He said business owners anxious about how consumers would respond to lifting of public health mandates weren’t overreacting. There are legitimate questions about how small businesses, considered the backbone of commerce, will awaken, he said.
"There’s uncertainty about what’s going to happen," he said. "The human toll of this crisis is incalculable. People are suffering at all levels and, particularly, those who have lost their jobs."
At the gift shop
Peterson, proprietor at Hemslojd in Lindsborg, said he ordered a temporary 50% reduction in hours for full-time employees and dramatic shrinkage in part-time hours. A federal loan, which doesn’t have to be repaid if used to keep workers on the payroll, was used to bring employee wages closer to normal, he said.
"Living in Lindsborg, many in our downtown rely heavily on tourism, and the thought of stay-at-home orders was paralyzing, both metaphorically and literally," Peterson said.
There were catalog and online orders to fill, but his staff kept busy painting and cleaning the store and participated in making face masks.
He said exceptionally loyal customers ordered items just to help the store, but online sales were down as people contemplated a murky economic future. There is hope day trips and weekend excursions to Lindsborg will rise as people search out less-populated areas of the state, he said.
"This is a scary time," Peterson said. "Lindsborg is suffering a trifecta of blows. We rely on tourism, a small private Bethany College and the agriculture industry to feed our economy. All are taking tremendous hits.
"We are optimistic in Lindsborg. We know the day will come when we can once again open our arms to visitors from across the world."