Health Officer Dr. Garold Minns issued a six-week health order Tuesday. It takes effect Sunday after current safety restrictions expire. Minns recommended the changes due to the continued local decline in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

“As a result, I feel it was reasonable to relax on some of the restrictions in the county order to hopefully improve the situation for small businesses and other entities that have suffered through this pandemic,” Minns said. The curfew for bars and restaurants that serve alcohol is now midnight, instead of 11 p.m. The curfew began in November when the COVID-19 positive test rate soared to a record 22.3%. (The county has since adjusted the average rate to about 19% for that period.)

Sedgwick County commissioners amended the health order Wednesday to remove the curfew for restaurants that don’t serve alcohol. Commissioner Jim Howell proposed the change. He said there was no reason those restaurants should have to limit in-person dining.

“The faster we get back to normal, the better it is for the economy and better it is for many, many people in the community,” Howell said. “If numbers go the wrong direction, we can always come back and visit this again.”

Bars, restaurants, event venues and fitness centers can now have up to 150 people at their establishment or 75% of fire code capacity, whichever is less. Retail stores will now have a 75% capacity limit, instead of 50%. The limit on mass gatherings will increase from 25 to 100 people.

Commissioner Sarah Lopez proposed reducing the gathering limit to 50 instead of 100, but the amendment failed by a 3-2 vote. Four spectators per participant instead of two will be allowed at youth and adult recreational sports events. The change puts the county in line with the recent ruling from the Kansas State High School Activities Association, which governs middle and high school sports and activities.

Lopez proposed limiting spectators to two per athlete at indoor sports events, but the amendment failed by a 3-2 vote. “The last thing I want to see is we us make these changes, our numbers start to rise…and then having to revert back,” she said. “I think going backwards is going to be much harder than taking small incremental steps forward.”

Sedgwick County’s positive COVID-19 test rate was about 7% this week, down considerably since November. The local hospital status was downgraded from “critical” to “cautious” as admissions declined for a ninth straight week. The number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units also dropped to October levels.

The new health order keeps the mask mandate and six-foot social distancing requirements intact. Minns says if there is a spike in new COVID-19 infections as a result of loosening restrictions, he will reconsider the directives.

Sedgwick County added possible fines for violating the health order in November. Hundreds of complaints about possible violations have been submitted. To date, the county has issued six citations and was in the process of issuing eight more this week. Sedgwick County has enacted more than a dozen public health orders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic since July. The latest health order is in effect until March 20.

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