Republican legislators overturn executive order limiting church crowds; attorney general had advised police not to enforce order; health officials report surge to 38 deaths, 1,046 cases

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TOPEKA — A Republican-controlled panel of Kansas legislative leaders on Wednesday voted to overturn an executive order limiting attendance at church gatherings and funerals, igniting a fiery rebuke from Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.

Kelly blasted Republicans, including Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, for engaging in a “shamefully political attack” that undermines her administration’s efforts to control the spread of COVID-19. The dispute erupted as health officials revealed the largest single-day spike in coronavirus deaths and infections in Kansas.

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The state added 11 deaths, a 40% increase, for a total of 38. Confirmed cases jumped from 900 to 1,046.

Kelly announced on Tuesday she was removing exemptions for churches and funerals from a statewide order that limits gatherings of more than 10 individuals. Schmidt responded Wednesday by issuing a memo that advised police not to enforce it.

The Legislative Coordinating Council then voted 5-2 along party lines to rescind the governor’s order. Because the order had replaced an earlier directive, the action invited confusion about whether there is no longer a statewide ban on any kind of large public gathering.

"I was so deeply troubled to learn that our attorney general has decided to launch a bizarre, confusing and overtly political attack at such a moment of tragedy and that Republican legislative leaders have chosen to follow suit with a shockingly irresponsible decision that will put every Kansas life at risk,“ Kelly said.

Governors in 44 states have imposed similar restrictions on church attendance in the face of a deadly and contagious disease. But Republicans in Kansas complained that Kelly had overstepped her authority by restricting religious gatherings.

“It appears to be out of line, extreme and clearly in violation, a blatant violation, of our fundamental rights,” said Senate president Susan Wagle, a Republican from Wichita.

In his memo, Schmidt said he considers the order to be sound public health advice and urged Kansans to adhere to the guidelines. However, he said, the order likely violates freedoms protected by the Kansas Constitution.

“Because no Kansan should be threatened with fine or imprisonment, arrested or prosecuted for performing or attending church or other religious services,” Schmidt said, “law enforcement officers are advised to ... avoid engaging in criminal enforcement of its limitations on religious facilities, services or activities.”

Violating a state executive order can result in a class A misdemeanor charge, which is punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500.

Kelly said Schmidt’s memo was “unusual,” “unwarranted” and “nonsensical.” A governor’s executive order carries the full force of law, she said, and an attorney general’s memo “has no legal authority whatsoever.“

"What it does have is the ability to undermine and inject chaos into our statewide emergency response systems,“ Kelly said. ”What it does have is the ability to detract our efforts away from saving Kansans' lives and mitigating the threat of this deadly virus all because we're being forced to clear up confusion and respond to a shamefully political attack."

Schmidt said he disagreed with the governor’s assessment “that adhering to the laws and constitution of this state is an unnecessary distraction.”

“My point of view should not have been surprising to the governor because my office repeatedly advised against issuing the overreaching executive order regulating churches and notified her I would express my concerns publicly if she proceeded,” Schmidt said. “She did, and so did I.”

Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said his agency was aware of 12 group gatherings in the state that were connected to at least 165 infections and 12 deaths. Those outbreaks include three church-based gatherings, he said.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Democrat from Topeka, said he personally knew two constituents who died after attending a church event in Wyandotte County that has been linked to an outbreak of COVID-19 infections.

"I regret that has happened to them, and I would regret that we have any more deaths here in Kansas," Hensley said.

Before voting to overturn the executive order, Rep. Blaine Finch, a Republican from Ottawa and speaker pro tem, said the governor’s action to limit church crowds included “wise and measured steps.”

"It is not worth going to church on Sunday and risking that you will be infected with this virus or risking the health and safety of anyone else around them,“ Finch said. ”I think we have a duty to look out for one another and not spread this virus."

He applauded faith leaders across the state who have developed alternative means of worship, such as streaming services online, that limit face-to-face interaction.

The governor said she had directed her legal staff to pursue every available option in response to the LCC’s decision to overturn her order.

"There are real-life consequences to the partisan games Republican leaders played today, and I simply cannot stand for it,“ Kelly said. ”Kansans are dying every day at the hand of this pandemic, and there is no room or excuse for these petty political distractions."

Out of patience

Kansas Department of Labor Secretary Delia Garcia pleaded for patience and understanding during a live address on Facebook to the thousands of suddenly out-of-work Kansans struggling to navigate the state’s system for unemployment benefits.

The labor department’s call center has been overwhelmed as businesses shut down operation in response to COVID-19 and a statewide order to shelter in place except for essential services. Last week, the agency received 50,345 new claims to add to the 50,088 already receiving unemployment benefits.

By comparison, the agency recorded 1,405 new claims, with 8,501 receiving benefits, a year ago.

On Monday, the agency’s call center fielded 1.6 million calls.

Those who tuned in to the secretary’s live address unleashed frustration about payments on hold, a bogged-down website, a system that locks up when trying to submit a claim, error messages and being locked out of accounts. Meanwhile, phone lines are jammed.

"Thank you for your patience with this,“ Garcia told the 9,000 who watched her video. ”We know we have a lot of things to go through and fix to make sure we're serving you."

A review of the comments section suggested her remarks weren’t well received.

“Our patience is running out,” one person wrote. “We’ve been waiting WEEKS for you to do your job. I’m glad you’re ’working hard’ but this is unacceptable.”

Others wrote: “It’s been 4 weeks ... still no money,” “we got kids to feed,” and “resign already.”

Garcia advised those seeking unemployment benefits to use the online portal at www.getkansasbenefits.gov rather than try to call in. She said staff was working to fix inadvertent hangups that have plagued some callers. She also warned that the website’s maintenance window is from 10:15 p.m. to 6 a.m. every night.

Staff from other executive branch agencies is being redirected and trained to assist the labor department.

“We will get through this together,” Garcia said. “It is a partnership.”

“Love how people who are working and getting paid say we will get through this together,” one person responded, “while we are wondering how to get food and bills with no money.”

“All you ever do is repeat the same thing over and over,” another said. “Can you please get to the part of the system being able to handle the workload?”

The labor department was still working to implement the new federal stimulus program, which would add $600 to benefit checks. The agency said those who are eligible will receive back pay once the state system is configured to make the payments.

Kelly said the labor department is using old technology that was scheduled to be modernized before the crisis hit. The swarm of unemployment claims forced the agency to hold off on the transition.

"They're operating on really old stuff,“ Kelly said. ”And then you talk about 12 times as many applications coming in at one time, 877,000 phone calls in one day — that's going to overwhelm a good system, much less the kind of system that we were stuck with. They are doing everything they possibly can."

Release of prisoners

Kelly says corrections officials are going through the list of inmates in state prison who are close to release and looking for ones who have “viable plans” for successful re-entry.

An outbreak of COVID-19 at the Lansing Correctional Facility has infected 12 inmates and 11 staff members, prompting calls for early release of prisoners.

Kelly said the infected Lansing staff are isolated at home and infected prisoners are quarantined in a separate building from the rest of the prison population.

"Hopefully, we'll be able to move quite a few of those folks back into their communities,“ Kelly said. ”We want to make sure before we let those folks out though that we've got things in place that will make sure they have a good chance of success, and also that it won't be a shock to any one particularly community."

Melody Brannon, federal public defender for Kansas, said the state isn’t moving quickly enough.

“The governor is working on the issues, and any progress she makes will be helpful,” Brannon said. “But every day we wait, we lose ground. More people in jails will become ill and some will die.”

Federal authorities have decided that the threat of COVID-19 in federal prisons is mere speculation, Brannon said, until someone actually tests positive. The problem with that approach: CoreCivic, which runs the Leavenworth detention center, isn’t testing.

At the state-run Lansing prison, inmates were still making daily trips to participate in work release programs at essential businesses.

“Whether state or federal, any person who has been deemed trustworthy enough to work in the community should be released,” Brannon said. “No one should be traveling on a daily basis between an infectious congregate jail setting and an infected public community. That can only increase the rate of infection.”