Kansas COVID state of emergency ending after Republicans refuse to consider extension

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Kansas’s COVID-19 state of emergency, in place for 15 months, will come to an end Tuesday as top Republican lawmakers canceled a meeting to consider an extension sought by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.

The expiration of the emergency declaration is a significant turning point in Kansas’s pandemic response, marking the effective end of a disaster-like approach. Over the past year, the governor and state officials have relied on the declaration to deploy the National Guard, suspend regulations and speed vaccinations.

But with new cases well below winter peaks and continuing frustration among Republican lawmakers over Kelly’s emergency authority, Senate President Ty Masterson called off a planned meeting of the Legislative Coordinating Council, made up of top Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

The council would have weighed potentially keeping the state of emergency in place until August.

The cancellation came after the Republican majority on the LCC in May only reluctantly authorized an extension until June 15. At the time, Masterson, who chairs the LCC, and other officials signaled the short-term extension was likely the last one they would support.

“At last month’s LCC meeting, a majority of legislative leaders made it clear that June 15th was likely to be the end of the state of emergency — that after 15 months, it is time for Kansas to return to normal,” Masterson said in a statement Tuesday. “As such, the LCC recommended the governor develop an exit strategy to end the emergency — however, after reviewing the governor’s letter, it appears the governor opted for an extension strategy.”

Masterson said the Legislature and the LCC granted Kelly every extension request over the past year, “but the current circumstances surrounding COVID-19 no longer necessitate a statewide disaster emergency.”

“The governor has not provided adequate justification for the LCC to grant her request for yet another extension, and all remaining efforts related to COVID-19 can and should take place under our normal procedures. As such, the statewide disaster emergency will expire as planned,” Masterson said.

In a statement, Kelly said the move would hamper the state’s vaccination and recovery efforts.

“A state disaster response has never been, and should not be, political. The actions by a select few Republicans in the Legislature will make our response more difficult,” Kelly said.

“We will move forward in spite of this political obstruction and continue to work with our partners and communities to support our schools, businesses, and all Kansans through this pandemic.”

The pandemic isn’t over in Kansas. Last week, the state reported more than 900 cases and 25 deaths. Those figures are well below the peak of the outbreak in November and December, however, when the state was averaging more than 2,800 cases every week. About 40% of the population is fully vaccinated. Kansas ranks 35th in the nation for its vaccination rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman, Majority Leader Dan Hawkins and Speaker Pro-Tem Blaine Finch -- all Republicans -- in a joint statement said Kelly’s letter confirmed emergency operations were no longer needed.

“The remaining goal to make vaccines available to all Kansans who want them is one that our state can achieve without emergency measures and executive orders,” the statement said.

“The emergency part of this disaster has thankfully passed. Now is the time to help Kansans recover, rally, and return to normal.”

Some county and local governments may continue to have an emergency in effect, even after the statewide declaration ends. Johnson County has had one in place since March 2020. In an email, county spokeswoman Lori Sand said the county is “evaluating the potential impacts” of the state emergency expiring.

Kansas is the ninth state to lift its emergency order nationwide according to the National Academy for State Health Policy. Missouri’s emergency is set to remain in effect through August 31 as Gov. Mike Parson winds down emergency operations.

Kelly set forth a plan Friday to remove all but two of her executive orders related to the emergency by mid-July and told lawmakers in a letter that most of the state’s emergency operations would end Tuesday.

Kelly planned to retain emergency orders related to COVID-19 testing requirements in nursing homes and allowing retired and student medical professionals to distribute COVID-19 vaccines.

Through continued use of an emergency order Kelly said the Kansas National Guard would have continued to transport vaccines, provide security and facilities for vaccine clinics and operate highway message boards.

Will Lawrence, Kelly’s Chief of Staff, said many of the tasks handled previously by the Kansas National Guard and through the Department of Emergency Management would shift to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

But, he said, the state would encounter more personnel and logistical hurdles without the National Guard and would have a harder time vaccinating children when they become eligible. For months, Lawrence said, the administration had set September 2021 as the goal for ending the emergency.

“You don’t just shut everything down at a moment’s notice,” Lawrence said.

COVID-19 testing and use of contract nurses will continue as part of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s normal work. In her letter, Kelly also said the emergency order would be important for efforts to vaccinate children as they return to school in August but the letter did not explain why.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said Friday that Kansas will remain eligible for FEMA benefits with or without an emergency order. But Lawrence said the administration was unsure how long those benefits would last without an order.

Furthermore, Kelly said in her letter that federal SNAP benefits, which provide food assistance to individual Kansans, could be at risk.

Last year, Congress approved expanded SNAP benefits for residents of states with emergency orders. Kelly said without the order 63,000 families would lose those expanded benefits immediately rather than retaining them through the summer.

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