Cities and counties across the Kansas City metropolitan area on Friday began lifting health orders that have been in place for more than a year to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
Clay County, Jackson County and Independence announced Friday morning that they were letting their health orders expire. They followed Kansas City and Johnson County, which announced Thursday evening that they were dropping or amending their orders.
The trustees for the Platte County Health Center board, following much of the rest of the metro, met virtually at 9 a.m. Saturday and approved changes to its mask order, according to news release posted to the Platte County Health Department’s website.
Still, despite the change in health orders people may find that they have to wear masks in public at times. Businesses, organizations and places of worship are still allowed to require masks and social distancing to protect staff and customers.
Masks are also required in health care settings, correctional facilities, homeless shelters and on public transportation.
The actions by area officials come after new recommendations released Thursday by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advising that people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 “can participate in indoor and outdoor activities, large or small, without wearing a mask or physical distancing,” according to CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky.
The Clay County Public Health Center advised anyone who is not fully vaccinated to continue to take precautions, such as wearing masks, social distancing and avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated indoor spaces.
“More than ever, it is important that those who have the option to get vaccinated choose to do so,” said Gary E. Zaborac Director of Public Health, in a news release.
“Yesterday’s update from the CDC is certainly very welcome guidance for a pandemic-weary country and it highlights the importance and success of vaccination as the best tool we have to end this pandemic and protect the people in our community.”
Independence Mayor Eileen Weir, in consultation with acting health director Christina Heinen, announced that masks are no longer required indoors or outdoors and all social distancing capacity restrictions have been lifted.
“Since declaring a State of Emergency on March 12, 2020, our city has followed the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control, which now allows fully vaccinated people to cease wearing a mask indoors and outdoors in the City of Independence,” Mayor Eileen Weir said in a news release.
“Our community has made tremendous sacrifices and shown incredible strength and compassion over the past 14 months, and today marks a significant milestone in our public health efforts to battle the global pandemic.”
The city noted that masks are still required on public transportation.
The changes announced by the CDC were welcomed by a lot of people, said Dana Hawkinson, medical director of infection prevention and control at The University of Kansas Health System.
“But we have to understand this is for fully vaccinated people, so we really do need the responsibility of every individual to continue to go out and get vaccinated if you haven’t been,” he said. “It is one step closer to normalcy, by no means is the virus gone.”
In the past seven days, the Kansas City metropolitan area added 794 new cases and 30 deaths.
Doctors at the health system said some people may not tell the truth about their vaccination status.
“It is the honor system,” said chief medical officer Steve Stites. “When you make that decision, the one who’s most likely to get harmed is yourself and then the other unvaccinated people around you. It’s a personal choice at that level — what’s the right thing to do?”
Meanwhile, the commissioners of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, will meet Monday to discuss the CDC’s mask recommendations and consider possible changes for the county.
The Unified Government Public Health Department “continues to recommend that the Unified Government maintain its existing health order requiring mask-wearing indoors (unless everyone in the room is vaccinated),” Janell Friesen, public information officer for the health department, said in an email.
Seven out of 10 people in Wyandotte County have not received a single dose of a COVID vaccine, she said.
“Our community remains at substantial risk, especially to transmission that occurs indoors when masks are not worn,” she said.
Immunization rates vary widely across the Kansas City area.
Platte County announced Saturday morning that its health orders previously restricting business operations and gathering sizes were rescinded.
While unvaccinated people are still asked to wear masks and distance, those who are fully vaccinated no longer need to do so, unless businesses require them.
Jackson County announced that its health orders requiring masks indoor businesses and public places would expire once the order is signed Friday afternoon.
“In light of the most current information available, and in light of the CDC’s recommendations, we are rescinding our current health order,” said Jackson County Executive Frank White Jr.
“While this is welcome news for many, we cannot forget that this virus is still present and poses a risk to our residents, especially those who are not fully vaccinated. People are still contracting COVID-19 and dying from it. We need everyone to take personal responsibility and get vaccinated so we can truly put this devastating virus behind us.”
Like others who have dropped their health orders, business and other public spaces are allowed to set their own mask requirements. The county and the Jackson County Health Department said they will support efforts of employers and organizations to protect their workers and customers.
Masks will still be required in county buildings and facilities for staff and visitors until further notice.
Johnson County leads the metro with 43.9% of its residents fully vaccinated against the virus.
That’s followed by Platte County at 32.2%, Jackson County at 31.2%, Clay County at 30% and Wyandotte County at 27.5%, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Johnson County Department of Health and Environment announced Thursday that it would adopt the new CDC guidance allowing those who are fully vaccinated for COVID-19 to resume normal activities without wearing masks or physically distancing.
“This is what we have been working toward,” said Dr. Sanmi Areola, the health department’s director. “The science is clear — the vaccines are working. We hope everyone age 12 and older takes advantage of this important tool to stay safe and end the pandemic. Getting vaccinated protects you, it protects others, and it lets us begin to return to normal.”
People are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving their second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or two weeks after they have received the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Kansas City mayor Quinton Lucas announced Thursday evening that the city would rescind its emergency order at noon Friday, shifting its efforts toward encouraging people to become fully vaccinated.
Kansas City’s latest emergency order, approved last month, eased coronavirus-related restrictions regarding mask-wearing and social distancing. But it still required face coverings in most situations where people were close to one another.
The change in CDC guidance made it a challenge for the city to enforce a mask mandate that only applies to unvaccinated persons, Lucas said at a press conference Friday morning, which was carried live by KCTV-5.
“We found, somewhat regrettably, that it is the most prudent option for us now to proceed to rescind our mask mandate and Kansas City’s emergency order in its entirety,” Lucas said. “There will be no mask rules that will be enforced by the health department, regulated industries or other divisions of Kansas City government.”
Businesses, schools and organizations can continue to to have their own rules.
“All the rules that existed for your schools, for your grocery stores, for your private businesses and enterprises can continue to exist,” Lucas said. “Importantly, they have the authority to continue to impose rules as they see fit to protect those who come within their doors.”
The Star’s Bill Lukitsch contributed to this report.