Gov. Laura Kelly says three-phase plan for reopening the economy sets path to new normal by mid-June; Some businesses can open Monday, others must wait; House and Senate GOP leaders not impressed; Strategy depends on aggressive testing, tracking infected people, isolating sick

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TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly unveiled Thursday night her framework for reopening the state by phasing out restrictions for businesses and social activities over the next six weeks while ramping up efforts to test and trace the spread of a deadly virus that left residents isolated and put the state’s economy in a tailspin.

Kelly announced her plans, which begin with the expiration Monday of her statewide stay-at-home order, in a live address to the people of Kansas. She said the blueprint of her exit strategy from the dark cloud created by COVID-19 was a painstaking, intensive exercise in finding a balance.

"It’s an effort to balance non-negotiable public health considerations with jaw-dropping, unsustainable economic realities," the governor said. "It’s an effort to balance state obligations to keep Kansas communities safe with the need for returning flexibility to local leaders. And it’s an attempt to balance the need for stability in the future with agility as we continue to adapt to a rapidly evolving, lethal threat."

Health officials have recorded 125 deaths and more than 4,200 infections across Kansas since the virus was first detected here on March 7. Recent fatalities and hospitalizations have waned, and officials believe the worst of the pandemic is over. More than 215,000 Kansas filed for unemployment benefits as the virus spread, but some of those jobs may be gone forever.

Kelly’s three-phase plan begins with rapid, wide-scale testing capabilities to identify who has been infected before they unknowingly spread the disease. The state plans to recruit and train 400 new workers for a robust contact tracing program.

Each phase would run a minimum of 14 days but could be extended by the state if the virus unexpectedly spreads. The second phase would kick in May 18 and the third on June 1. A more complete relaxation of the restrictions could take place June 15. Under a new executive order, counties would be allowed to impose more stringent limits but couldn’t adopt less aggressive controls.

"This framework is not a suggestion that local communities roll back safety measures automatically, simply because it is technically permissible to do so," Kelly said. "The state is making a concerted effort to return local control and flexibility to this process, but the state framework should be considered the floor for safeguards — not the ceiling."

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said people were relieved the governor promised to lift the stay-at-home order, but disappointed with restrictions applied to certain businesses.

"Everybody was thinking she’s going to take her foot off the pedal," Wagle said. "There’s a lot of restrictions in this order. Everyone was planning to open Monday with social distancing."

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said Kelly presented a "responsible and reasonable" plan.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, said the governor’s speech left people with unanswered questions. Certain businesses are blocked from opening regardless of safety precautions, he said.

"We were hopeful the governor would issue a statewide plan to safely reopen the Kansas economy like other governors have done," Ryckman said.

Initial phase

In the first phase of reopening the state, Kelly’s statewide ban on gatherings that exceed 10 people will remain in effect.

Restaurants will be allowed to open without a limit on seating capacity, but each table of customers would need to be separated by 6 feet. Plastic barriers can be used to divide back-to-back booths in restaurants.

Retailers will be expected to operate in a manner consistent with grocery stores, which worked to avoid clustering of people at checkout lines, in dressing rooms and in aisles.

Certain establishments where human contact can’t be responsibly managed must remain closed during the first phase. That includes bars and nightclubs, theaters, museums, fitness centers, nail salons, hair salons/barber shops, tanning salons and tattoo parlors.

Some venues and activities also will remain banned in the initial phase. Those include community centers, high-capacity indoor and outdoor entertainment venues, swimming pools, sports, summer camps, carnivals, parades and graduations.

For now, public schools and universities will remain closed.

Other businesses, venues and activities may resume functions by preventing gatherings of 10 or more people in a specific area, ensuring individuals stay 6 feet apart, and following fundamental cleaning practices. Businesses are encouraged to allow employees to work remotely if possible, and any employee who appears to be sick should be required to stay at home.

Churches will be open for services if participants abide by the 6-foot rule. The governor's phase one order also allows residents to begin seeking non-emergent medical care from hospitals.

The first phase includes recommendations, but not requirements, that individuals wear cloth masks in public settings, maintain 6 feet of distance at parks and shopping areas, stay at home if vulnerable to serious illness, and limit travel to essential needs.

Visitation to long-term care facilities and prisons is discouraged.

Health officials will evaluate the reach of the virus, death rates and hospitalizations. If data trends continue to move in the right direction, the governor will advance the state into the second phase of her plan no sooner than May 18.

Later phases

In the second phase of the governor’s strategy for reopening the economy, she would authorize resumption of business at theaters, museums, fitness centers, arcades, hair salons/barber shops, nail salons, tattoo parlors, community centers, swimming pools and sports facilities.

Bars and night clubs will be allowed in the second phase to reopen at 50% capacity.

State-owned casinos could open if plans for protecting the health and safety of employees and customers were approved by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

The state will advance to a third and final phase after June 1 by expanding public gatherings to 90 people and allowing all businesses, venues and activities to resume functions.

In this third phase, outdoor and indoor venues with capacity greater than 2,000 would be allowed to reopen. Fairs, parades, festivals, summer camps and graduation events would be acceptable in the third phase.

A complete lifting of statewide restrictions could happen as early as June 15.

Kelly issued a series of executive orders beginning in early March aimed at managing the spread of the coronavirus as it reached across Kansas and threatened to overwhelm medical providers. Republican legislators bristled at some of her orders, accusing the Democratic governor of overstepping her authority.

The Republicans attempted to block Kelly's extension of her ban on mass gatherings to churches, leading to a high-profile legal battle on the eve of Easter Sunday. The Kansas Supreme Court sided with Kelly, but she later lost a challenge in federal court.

Some conservative lawmakers also complained that she was taking too long to reopen the state and breathe new life into a suffocating economy. Wagle, a Senate president and Republican from Wichita, proposed earlier this week the immediate reopening of businesses at 50% capacity.

Kelly said the COVID-19 pandemic had taken a toll on people that had financial, emotional, physical, spiritual and professional dimensions.

"We still have a long road ahead before we will be in a position to reflect on COVID-19 at all. But because of the sacrifices you’ve made in recent weeks, and the patriotism you have displayed toward your state and your country by taking this seriously and hunkering down, Kansas has been hit far less hard than other states," she said.