Governor says action during Holy Week gives her ’greatest sadness’ of any executive order; dairy groups say there is plenty of milk to meet demands; Moran asks president for help with supply shortage; state reports 27 deaths, 900 infections

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TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly announced Tuesday she was imposing crowd limits on religious gatherings in advance of Easter Sunday, forcing churches to keep attendance below 10 to help avoid the dangerous risk of spreading COVID-19 among worshippers.

The new executive order, effective Wednesday, also applies to funerals. A previous order banning public gatherings of more than 10 individuals had exempted religious gatherings and funerals.

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Taking action during Holy Week, the governor said, “brings me the greatest sadness” of all of the unprecedented executive orders she has signed in response to COVID-19.

"Kansans are a community of faithful people,“ Kelly said. ”We draw strength from fellowship and prayer. We rely on our pastors and our priests, our rabbis and imams, and all of our religious leaders for guidance and counsel — especially at times of sorrow, uncertainty and hardship, and especially during Holy Week."

Kelly’s action follows three breakouts of coronavirus infections attributed to church events in separate counties. It wasn’t immediately clear when or where those events took place, or how many infections were traced to the events.

The Rev. C.L. Bachus, of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Kansas City, Kan., called on the Christian community to adhere to the governor’s executive order.

“We’ve had some difficult experiences in the religious community that makes this action necessary,” Bachus said. “I encourage you all to obey the mandate. It’s time we use good common sense as well as exercise our faith during this difficult time. We are all in this together.”

Overall, the COVID-19 is responsible for 27 deaths with 900 confirmed cases in Kansas.

Kelly’s order prohibits local officials from outright banning church gatherings or funerals. Her order requires social distancing and proper hygiene for gatherings of 10 or fewer.

She strongly encouraged all faith leaders to embrace alternative forms of worship and thanked the many who already have.

"If we've learned anything in recent weeks, it's that physical distance does not keep us apart,“ Kelly said. ”Many religious texts call on us to love our neighbors as ourselves, so although it will happen virtually this year, we will continue to celebrate each other, worship with one another and pray for each other on Easter Sunday."

Shirley Heermance, pastor of St. Mark's African Methodist Episcopal Church in Topeka, said she stands in support of the governor’s decision.

"We are grateful to have opportunity to continue in worship, study, and official meetings through the social media and teleconferencing,“ Heermance said. ”Our hearts are filled with sorrow over the 11,000-plus lives lost to the COVID-19 virus. We are thankful for all those who serve through this crisis on the front line and will remain prayerful until at last our God has healed our state, our nation and our world.”

Senate President Susan Wagle, a Republican from Wichita, criticized the governor for declining to take action to ban abortions while moving quickly to issue executive orders on other issues.

“At a time when Kansans and Americans are practicing good social distancing to slow the spread, Gov. Laura Kelly was quick to shut down schools for the entire year,” Wagle said. “Now, during Holy Week for Christians, she is closing our churches. It’s clear she will never close the abortion clinics in Kansas that are staffed with out-of-state doctors and cater to out-of-state clientele. We are doing our part to slow the spread. Our state government must do a better job upholding and respecting our values.”

They got milk

Dairy producers, forced to dump milk as the shuttering of schools and restaurants disrupts the supply chain, want grocers to stop exacerbating the problem by limiting sales.

National, regional and state organizations say they have plenty of milk to meet the needs of families and expressed disappointment in stores that refuse to sell more than one or two cartons of milk to individual customers.

"There is a huge problem with retailers restricting the amount of milk that consumers can purchase," the Kansas Dairy Association said in a statement. "We think that these signs being posted at the dairy case are a result of trying to stop hoarding of food. These signs are misleading to the consumer and lead them to believe there is a shortage. We all know that cows will keep producing, we just need to work harder to get the product to our consumers."

Dairy Farmers of America said it has assured retailers there is no shortage of fluid milk.

"If you experience stores limiting the amount of dairy shoppers may purchase, ask to speak with a manager to express your disappointment," the organization advised.

As the spread of COVID-19 upended daily lives, retailers limited sales of milk and other necessities to mitigate a panic-driven impulse to hoard. Meanwhile, the Kansas Dairy Association said, demand for milk was altered by the closing of public schools and restaurants, which led cooperatives to direct farmers to dispose of milk. The organization said about 10% of some loads of milk currently are being dumped.

“Hopefully, the message will be relayed and our wonderful dairy products will (be) distributed to the people who love and enjoy them,” the Kansas Dairy Association said. “Please reassure your friends and family that at this point, dairy is not in danger.”

Responding to concerns raised by dairy producers, prominent retailers in Kansas either stopped restricting milk sales or only apply restrictions to curbside pickups.

Sheila Lowrie, a spokeswoman for Kroger, the parent company of Dillons stores, said the grocer removed limitations on milk sales last week. Christina Gayman, a spokeswoman for Hy-Vee, said the grocer isn't limiting milk sales.

Walmart has a more nuanced approach. The retailer has limited key items that customers need, including milk, eggs, cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer, according to information provided by Delia Garcia, a spokeswoman for Walmart.

Walmart shifted positions two weeks ago and now is advising managers to reevaluate limits on in-store purchases of milk, but still allows stores to maintain restrictions if supplies run low. Additionally, the restrictions on online orders for pickup have increased from two to four units of milk.

Midwest Dairy, which represents 6,500 farms in Kansas and other area states, is reaching out to retailers and grocery associations to ask for the removal of limits on milk and dairy purchases, said communications specialist Jennifer Voegele. Now that the initial rush related to COVID-19 has passed, she said, the dairy industry is confident the supply can meet customer demand.

"We are living in unprecedented times, and dairy farmers throughout the Midwest are continuing to work tirelessly to produce milk that consumers need for their health and their families," Voegele said.

Presidential appeal

U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran has co-signed a letter formally asking President Donald Trump to supply first responders with necessary personal protective equipment.

The Kansas Republican joined three Republican and seven Democratic senators in asking the president to support firefighters, law enforcement officers and emergency medical services personnel who are vulnerable to being exposed to COVID-19.

Kansas, and every other state, is struggling to meet the demands for protective equipment amid a shortage of supplies and skyrocketing private market prices.

The senators urged Trump "to lead a strong, coordinated federal effort to support our first responders and address this national shortage."

"While first responders will not stop in their mission to protect us, we must uphold our end of the bargain to protect them and their families," the senators wrote. "Without aggressive federal action, we risk leaving first responders across the country without the tools and equipment they need to keep both themselves and our communities safe during this crisis."