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Shawnee Co. Commissioners urged to consider modifying COVID-19 restrictions on bars, closer to finalizing 2021 budget

Published: Aug. 10, 2020 at 12:10 PM CDT
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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - As new positive case numbers begin to decrease in Shawnee County, commissioners have been asked to revisit one of the restrictions on businesses in the county’s public health order.

During public comment at Monday’s county commission meeting, commissioners heard from local bar owners who asked them to reconsider restrictions on hours of operations for bars set during the pandemic.

Currently, bars and nightclubs in Shawnee County must close at midnight Sunday through Wednesday and by 11 pm Thursday through Saturday.

Owners said losing 17 hours of business per week hurts operations and increasing the hours would help with making up for business lost when bars were completely closed.

“We are looking at our long-term survival now and that includes making adjustments to survive in the current world that we’re living in with COVID we have to make changes, we have to make safety changes and we’re willing to do that,” Frankie Saiya of Abigail’s Grille and Bar said.

Saiya told commissioners he did not want to forego restrictions altogether, saying he felt rules like the requirement to wear masks in public helped in decreasing the spread of the virus, but that it is unfair to put a large responsibility of lowering new positive cases numbers for COVID-19 in Shawnee County on bars.

“We understand our position being a front line of this we understand the medical community believes that our locations are a cause of transmission and that’s why we’re willing to implement changes and policies within our establishments to affect real change,” he said. “We can make the changes necessary without forcing our closure early.”

Saiya explained bar-goers in Shawnee County differ from other areas of the state and country where the transmission of the virus might spread more easily.

“We are not a college town so comparing us to college town counties is like comparing apples and oranges it just doesn’t line up,” he said.

“Bars in Shawnee County don’t operate as dance clubs...I would say we operate more as pubs, sports bars, people come in they sit at a table and watch sports on TV when there’s going to be sports again, they order food, they order a couple drinks, it’s just a very different atmosphere.”

He said Shawnee County’s restrictions not only hurts the businesses, it increases the possibility of transmitting the virus with patrons bar hopping to other areas with fewer restrictions.

“We’re forcing behavior we’re forcing people to leave at 10 o’clock on the weekends and go to other places where they can drink,” he said.

“People are still going to go out they’re still going to party, they’re still going to socialize give us the ability to control that environment. "

Commissioner Bill Riphahn expressed concern about any businesses closing permanently as a result of the and noted other counties with less restrictions are also seeing downward trends.

“I don’t know that it makes that big a difference I do know it makes a lot of difference in the lives of people that work at bars they’re barely hanging on,” he said.

County Health Officer Dr. Gianfranco Pezzino said he could not consider lifting the restriction on hours of operations for bars at this time and said the results of multiple regulations on different types of businesses is key in planning how and when Shawnee County can fully and safely return to normal.

“Those restrictions act as one complex entity and if you take one major restriction at a time, none of them will have any major impact but if you take them altogether at a time hopefully they will have some impact,” he said.

“Those components must be given time to work together if we start removing a little component at a time we just don’t know what the effect could be and it’s not something I could recommend.”

Pezzino added any lapse of judgment because of drinking keeps the risk of the spread of the virus, regardless of the actions bars to take to stop it.

“Bars may do everything they’re supposed to do and the nature of the business that leads to increased public transmission of the virus it’s not because they’re not compliant necessarily, and it’s not because they’re doing anything wrong.”

Commissioner Bill Riphahn considered modifying the public health order for bars to close at midnight each day of the week, but no vote took place.

The County Counselor’s Office said they will draft an updated resolution to the emergency order to be further discussed at the next County Commission meeting on Thursday.

Dr. Pezzino said he would not recommend making any changes to the current health order.

Shawnee County Commissioners Monday approved to use $2.5 million dollars in county reserves to fund different programs in the county’s 2021 budget.

The motion was made by Commissioner Kevin Cook to avoid an increase to the mill levy.

The $2.5 million will go towards programs in Community Corrections, programs in the District Attorney’s Office, Valeo Health, operations of Great Overland Station, newly acquired by Shawnee County Parks and Recreation, and the Shawnee Co. Elections Office in anticipation for a mayoral primary next year.

Further discussion on the budget will take place at the next commission meeting on Thursday.

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