Protesters rally at the Capitol to oppose Gov. Laura Kelly’s stay-at-home order designed to limit spread of COVID-19; Kelly says reopening society will be "far more complex than merely flipping a switch"; Governor prepares to release prison inmates on humanitarian grounds; death toll rises to 112 with 2,482 cases

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to correct quotations that were incorrectly attributed to U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall of Kansas’ 1st Congressional District. The comments were made by Mike Beehler, who is running for Kansas’ 3rd Congressional District U.S. House of Representatives.


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TOPEKA — Protester David McDaniels pitched a troublesome theory Thursday during a protest outside the state Capitol that man-made coronavirus was unleashed on the world to trigger a vaccination campaign enabling implantation of microchips to track people.


McDaniels, of Gardner, said a COVID-19 vaccine was already available. He said Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, know about the cure and the microchip initiative.


"This is designed to bring down our economy and bring in the mandatory vaccination," he said. "This virus is man-made, and they’re not going to come out with this man-made virus without a cure. That’s my opinion."


That conspiracy theory has been discredited on the fact-checking website Snopes.com. Experts believe it could take more than a year to develop a coronavirus vaccine.


Most of the estimated 400 people on the statehouse grounds, and about 200 flag-decorated vehicles circling the Capitol, focused their loathing on Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive order, which requires nonessential businesses to close and for people to stay at home as much as possible. The protesters said Kelly’s response to the pandemic has been a classic case of government overreach that drove unemployment to record levels.


On Thursday, state officials said the coronavirus had been a factor in the death of 112 people and the infection of 2,482.


The governor’s statewide emergency declaration runs through May 1 and could be extended. The stay-home directive doesn’t expire until May 3.


On the statehouse sidewalk, Olathe T-shirt shop owner Rebecca Rinke was joined by her family’s youngest picketers, Sara, 8, and Billy, 5. They were convinced the interruption of business activity must come to a close because small business owners were struggling.


"We need to escape tyranny," Rinke said. "The governor shut down our business. We just hope business resumes somewhat normally when this is over."


Ed Myers, of Newton, said he considered Kelly’s order an "unconstitutional power grab."


"It just is," Myers said. "I can’t exactly tell you the right amendment, but it is."


Robert Wood, another protester, drove from Pittsburg to attend. When asked if he had traveled to Topeka with friends or family members, Wood said he considered everyone at the rally family.


"They’re patriots," he said.


Hayward’s Pit BBQ owner Eric Sweeney said during the protest that revenue at the Shawnee restaurant was slashed 50% since sales have been limited to sidewalk pickup and home delivery. He has been rotating his 33 employees at work to provide them some income. He vowed to reopen in early May with or without the governor’s blessing.


"If they want to come and arrest me, I’ll take them to court," Sweeney said. "What’s wrong with free will?"


Governor’s view


Kelly, who says she has concentrated on public health issues rather than political implications of the pandemic, said she hadn’t personally communicated with any of the protesters about their concerns. The commercial shutdown and isolation of people was designed to slow spread of the virus and lower the rate of infection and death.


"I really understand people are tired," the governor said. "This is frustrating to be cooped up. It is frustrating to not go to work and have a paycheck coming in."


She said name-calling of her by protesters didn’t break new ground.


"One of the things that many don’t know is that I actually used to work with adolescents and so there is no name in the book that I haven’t been called at some point in my life," Kelly said.


If the governor allows statewide executive orders to expire, county health officials would be responsible for adopting restrictions. If the virus rebounded in Kansas, she said, it might be necessary to impose new restrictions in the fall or winter.


Kelly’s benchmarks for reopening Kansas business and society will be tied to testing capacity, personal protection supplies, contact tracing and hospital space.


"This will be a gradual rollout," Kelly said. "It will be far more complex than merely flipping a switch or rescinding an executive order."


Discontent obvious


Wichita demonstrator Todd Eck’s sign declared Gov. Kelly a socialist dictator in the fashion of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He said the governor’s stay-at-home order unreasonably sabotaged the state’s economy by forcing people out of work. His sign: "Socialist Gov. Kelly is a dictator that rules like Putin."


He volunteered to be infected with COVID-19 to prove it wasn’t the kind of plague some claimed.


"I would get injected with it and show them," Eck said.


Bryan Freed, a Manhattan bail bondsman, drove his 1994 Cadillac Superior hearse to the event. When the court system narrowed operations, he was out of a job. The governor should have sought some sort of middle ground between a shutdown and wide-open business operations, he said.


Kennedy Horacek attended the rally Thursday with a group of friends. They donned camouflage clothing and carried semi-automatic rifles to protest Gov. Kelly’s order.


Horacek, and those with him, argued individuals should take it upon themselves to stay away from the virus.


"The government is not supposed to be responsible for our safety," he said. "By the constitution, it’s up to us to protect ourselves."


He and his friends carried guns, they said, as a physical display of their rights and liberties. They also wanted to be armed in case Thursday’s protest turned violent, said Christopher Ledbetter, who accompanied Horacek.


Brad Beachler, another friend, said people who "trade essential liberty for a false promise of temporary security deserve neither liberty nor security."


Though they protested the stay-at-home order, Horacek, Ledbetter and Beachler said they do support health care workers but argued it should be the responsibility of hospitals to take care of those workers, not the government.


Not a good idea


University of Kansas Health System chief medical officer Steve Stites said people demanding an abrupt reopening of society without adherence to principles of social distancing and good hygiene see the world as it was — not as it is.


He said the assembly of people irritated by Kelly’s executive orders reflected both the cherished right to freedom of expression and a dangerous lack of public health discipline.


Evidence is overwhelming that congregating people in a pandemic spreads disease, Stites said. People will be asked to stay 6 feet apart, cough into an elbow and use hand cleaner, he said, but many will veer from those standards.


He has a risk-averse message for the anti-quarantine crowd.


"Did that work in the meatpacking plants? No," said Stites, the physician-turned host of KU Health System’s daily online program on the coronavirus. "Does that work in nursing homes? No. Did that work in churches when there are a lot of people? No."


"If you want to think about reopening society and you want to go out and have a protest about it, can you think of a worse way to make your point than watch a lot of people get infected?" Stites said.


Audrey Hastings, a registered nurse in Topeka, has been working on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic. She and two other nurses stood at the foot of the south-end Statehouse steps in opposition of the protest.


"I work for an ICU, and I’ve seen all the preparations and the work that we’ve done," Hastings said.


She said the hospitals haven’t been overwhelmed yet but worries that if the state doesn’t reopen slowly, a second wave of the coronavirus could overwhelm health care workers. Zane White, another registered nurse who attended the protest, has a similar view.


"I work with infectious disease, so it’s pretty much engulfed my life for the past two months," White said. "It’s just mostly about being out here and supporting other health care workers. … This sort of thing, especially 10 or 11 days out, is just unnecessary. It’s just going to push us back further."


Political side


Mike Beehler, who is running for Kansas’ 3rd Congressional District U.S. House of Representatives, drove from Kansas City to support the protest. He called on Kelly to end the state’s stay-at-home order, citing the impact on small businesses and the Kansas economy.


"We have gotten over the health care hurdle. We have managed the situation. We did not overload our hospitals," Beehler said. "We are looking for a cure, but we cannot wait 12 to 18 months for a cure to come along for the coronavirus. We just can’t wait that long."


He argued the state, country and world have "gone a little bit overboard" with shutting down the economy.


"We’ve put many, many businesses at risk," Beehler said. "I’m worried about the small mom-and-pop restaurants that are never coming back."


In a violation of social distancing recommendations, state Sen. Kevin Braun, a Leavenworth Republican, stood on the south apron of the Capitol for a lengthy discussion with about 50 people packed around him. One man demanded to know when GOP legislators refused to confront the Democratic governor.


"I believe you have seen though this process that the Republican Party has stood up," Braun said.


Early release


Kelly said she was a couple of days away from announcing release of inmates by the Kansas Department of Corrections because of the coronavirus.


COVID-19 has been detected in inmates or employees at Lansing, Topeka and Wichita prisons. Sixty employees and 50 inmates at Lansing Correctional Facility have tested positive, the agency said Wednesday. One prisoner and one staff at Topeka Correctional Facility were positive for the virus, while one inmate at the Wichita work release facility contracted it.


"I don’t want anybody to think it’s going to be a whole huge number, but we have gone through the list of people who might be eligible for that," Kelly said.


Meanwhile, ACLU of Kansas said a Leavenworth County District Court judge decided a lawsuit seeking release of vulnerable inmates jeopardized by COVID-19 would proceed.


The ACLU argue conditions in Department of Corrections facilities constitute a violation of Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. Inmates over 50 years of age with underlying conditions, such as diabetes and asthma, can’t practice social distancing or other preventative measures recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.