Health officials record 9 deaths, 368 infections; gun store owners thankful to stay in business during statewide stay-at-home order; pastor urges online Easter: ’Let's not fill the empty tomb’; nursing facility with outbreak linked to facilities with deaths in KC, Washington state

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TOPEKA — For Rick Irvine, fear is good for business.

Like a lot of other gun stores, his BeginAgains Pawn and Gun in Holton has enjoyed a spike in business in recent weeks as anxieties about COVID-19 and intensified government response spread like the virus itself.

"It's just an unprecedented situation, so people are a little concerned," Irvine said. "They don't know what's going to happen. We've had a lot of new faces in here. I would say non-gun people are coming in and shopping for guns and buying guns. So yeah, it's mostly probably fear-driven."

Health officials in Kansas have recorded at least nine deaths related to the coronavirus and 368 infections in 39 counties, numbers they expect could multiply in the days and weeks ahead.

Gov. Laura Kelly has issued a series of executive orders aimed at blunting the health and financial toll of COVID-19. Her latest executive order — as of Monday, all Kansans must stay at home except for necessities — served as kindling for those who wonder if her actions interfere with the commerce of buying and selling guns and bullets.

The topic came up during a hearing Sunday by the Legislative Coordinating Council, which meets to review the governor's executive orders and has the power to revoke them.

"I've received lots of texts and emails about the Second Amendment, and I know it's addressed in the order," said House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita. "But does that mean any business that sells firearms or ammo is considered essential?"

Kelly's chief counsel, Clay Britton, said the stay-at-home order makes an exemption for the manufacture and sale of firearms, firearm accessories or ammunition.

"It's hard for me to envision a business related to firearms either being produced or sold or distributed that would not fall under that category," Britton said. "The intent, certainly, was to broadly exempt all of them from any prohibitions on this order."

Still, Irvine wonders if safety precautions for the pandemic are overblown.

He is thankful his own business is exempt, but he doesn't like any mandatory closure of business. People should be allowed to make their own decisions, he said.

"I'm not a doctor by any means," Irvine said. "I'm kind of going off of my intuition. It seems like this cure is going to potentially do more damage than this disease. That's just my intuition based on some reading that I've done, but I could be wrong, too."

Irvine also isn't happy about a delay in firearms transactions imposed by federal authorities. Typically, he said, he can turn over a gun within three days. With state offices closed, however, the delay in background checks means he has to wait two to three weeks to complete a sale.

The gun store owner has offered his opinions on the pandemic in a series of pointed remarks on his personal Facebook page.

On March 18, Irvine posted notice his store would remain open "during this ridiculously exaggerated flu season." If the state forced the store to close, he said, "we will be having a garage sale. ... We just won't collect sales tax I guess."

He joked in a March 24 post he had "detected a 38% increase in beer breath with my mid-day customers. In the matter of fairness, essential employees will now be allowed to day drink with the rest of you ***holes."

As Kansas authorities on Saturday reported the state's sixth death from the coronavirus, Irvine wrote: "If you think the COVID-19 death toll is getting up there, just wait till you see the number of lives lost from increased depression and anxiety due to mass hysteria and a self-inflicted economic collapse."

In an interview Monday, Irvine said he and his wife, Christina, aren’t concerned for their personal safety as they continue to do business with patrons. The 43-year-old said they went "into overdrive" with cleaning and disinfecting, and they don't shake hands as often as before.

"We're young, healthy, we take care of ourselves," Irvine said. "I'm happy to be working and providing people with ways to protect themselves if they need to."

Disaster declaration

President Donald Trump has approved a disaster declaration for Kansas, allowing the state to receive federal assistance in the fight against COVID-19.

The action provides direct assistance to local, state and tribal governments, as well as federally funded nonprofits.

"On behalf of the people of Kansas, I want to thank President Trump for granting this declaration," Kelly said. "This money will go a long way toward protecting the emergency personnel who work tirelessly to stem the outbreak and care for those stricken by this virus."

Kansas Department of Health and Environment Secretary Lee Norman said Monday that the escalating cases of COVID-19 include an outbreak of eight at the Life Care Center of Burlington, a skilled nursing facility in Coffey County. The facility is owned by the same Life Care company that operates a Wyandotte County facility where Kansas first recorded a death from the virus, as well as a Kirkland, Wash., facility where there have been more than 20 coronavirus deaths.

Kelly’s statewide stay-at-home order took effect Monday and is scheduled to last until at least April 19. Health officials hope to slow the spread of the virus by limiting social interactions to absolute necessities.

Norman said the KDHE lab in Topeka remains on pace for transformation this week into a rapid-test facility. The arrival of 65,000 test kits will allow the state to do population sampling that could guide decisions on lifting restrictions on social gathering.

He said he expects the crisis to peak in late April, a few days before lawmakers are scheduled to return to wrap up business for the legislative session.

"I don't second-guess the Legislature," Norman said, "but I think it would be unwise to gather people that soon after a peak."

Finding a way

The KDHE secretary said he was concerned a church gathering in Kansas had led to seven or eight confirmed cases of COVID-19, with some hospitalized. Churches are technically exempt from the governor’s order, but Norman said it would be inappropriate to encourage elbow-to-elbow clustering in churches.

"Churches are not immune from having coronavirus outbreaks," Norman said.

Kansas religious leaders savvy with technology have reached out to the faithful through live streaming and website videos.

Joe Hishmeh, lead minister at Fellowship Bible Church in Topeka, has offered a series of online sermons centered on the coronavirus. He said the goal two weeks ago was to have regular services, but evidence of the virus' spread made that unworkable.

"God is not thwarted by this crisis," Hishmeh said. "He's moving. He's acting. All the attention in the world right now is on this virus that is reaping havoc. He doesn't waste a crisis. The goodness of God is being revealed."

Archbishop Joseph Naumann, who leads the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, has performed Mass by live stream and via a podcast show. The Catholic churches are closed to public services, meaning no sermons or communion. Funerals can be conducted, but with no more than 10 people in attendance. In some cases, confessional sessions with a priest have been conducted outdoors.

Naumann urged church members to minimize the pandemic by following guidance of public health officials. The stay-at-home philosophy can have health benefits and unfortunate secondary consequences, he said.

"This could really be good for families. Actually to kind of renew ourselves and to realize, 'Do we really need to be doing all these things that we are normally involved with?' " Naumann said. "Stepping back from that for a moment could be a real grace in so many ways for individuals and families."

On the other hand, the archbishop said, society already had a problem of isolating people.

"We already had an epidemic of loneliness in our culture. Our technology has — yes, it can connect us — but it's isolated us. It's actually impaired a lot of human interactions," Naumann said.

The Facebook and Twitter social media platforms as well as emails and texts to Kansas government officials reveal anxiety about whether the governor could attempt to use emergency powers to keep people from exercising their First Amendment freedom of religious expression.

Tobias Schlingensiepen, pastor at First Congregational Church in Topeka, said it was critical for churches to be part of the community effort to slow the spread of coronavirus by adhering to the statewide shelter-in-place directive.

"As far as I'm concerned," he said, "arguing that our religious freedom is being violated by this order and therefore refusing to follow it would be tantamount to aiding and abetting COVID-19's threat to our neighbors' lives."

He said no one following Christ's command to love others would object to the fundamental public health guidance.

"Let's celebrate Easter online. Let's not fill the empty tomb," Schlingensiepen said.