Dickinson County Commissioners approved an amended Emergency Health Order Thursday that eliminates restrictions on mass gatherings.
The change also means fairs, festivals and other large events can now go on as usual. It also allows bars that serve alcohol to return to their pre-pandemic hours.
The amended health order — which still requires masks be worn in public — is now in effect until April 1.
Also, a modified quarantine order for county schools went into effect this week that will allow more kids to stay in school even if they have been exposed to COVID-19, depending on the nature of the exposure.
The Abilene Board of Education held a special meeting Thursday morning to accept the revised quarantine guidance for K-12 schools.
“We have watched our percent of positive (COVID-19) cases decrease and the number of cases decrease in our county, across the state and across the United States as well,” said Dickinson County Health Officer/Health Department Director John Hultgren. “That’s welcome news and I can guarantee there’s no one within the health department, myself included, who doesn’t want to get past this as soon as possible.”
Masks still needed
Although COVID-19 cases are now decreasing, Hultgren told county commissioners that it’s not yet time to eliminate masks.
“We want to get past this in a cautious, slow manner,” he said.
The county removed Section 2 of its Emergency Order, which limited the maximum capacity percentages for gatherings.
“It also allows for the opening or possible opening for fairs and festivals. We’re getting to that time, springtime, summertime when we start thinking of those sorts of activities and allowing those to happen,” Hultgren said.
“Obviously, in doing so, this is granting them the ability to plan for those, and some of those are far down the road,” Hultgren said.
Commenting that the Central Kansas Free Fair is held in August, Hultgren said that hopefully this will allow fair and other festival organizers time to start planning and making arrangements.
“”Hopefully those events can happen without any problem as long as our case rates stay down,” he added.
While many county residents still are calling for the mask portion of the order to be removed, Hultgren said it will remain in place for now.
However, if the virus situation continues to improve (with fewer cases and more people getting vaccinated) removing the mask order might be possible. The county will re-examine the necessity for mask wearing on a week-to-week basis.
“I think that for the health and protection of the public, it makes sense to walk into this and not run into this as we release some of these restrictions,” Hultgren said. “I want to get rid of the masks just as soon as we can, but I think we need to do so safely, make sure it’s the right time. Our positive percentage is declining down where we think some of those changes can be made, but we need to make sure that those are prolonged.”
Another factor to consider before restrictions are eliminated is the number of positive COVID-19 cases in surrounding counties, Hultgren said. Many Dickinson County people work in other counties, just as many people from nearby counties travel to Dickinson County to work.
“We don’t want a close county to be high (in COVID positives) and people bring the infection back to us. That all goes into what we use for review in making any changes to this order and we will continue to do that on a daily and weekly basis,” Hultgren said.
County Administrator Brad Homman said that as of Thursday all school district staff in the county who wanted a vaccine had received one, which was one of the factors leading to the new modified quarantine guidance for schools.
“Having them all vaccinated or a majority of them vaccinated is a big plus in that order,” Homman said.
“The more people we can vaccinate will help us in considering that masking mandate as we move forward. Obviously, if everyone’s vaccinated we don’t have a problem,” Homman said.”Unfortunately, we’re only seeing about 50 percent of people want a vaccine and we’re hearing that from other counties.
“That’s kind of what we’ve seen in the schools. Only 50 percent were interested,” he added.
Maybe some declined because they already had the virus, or they didn’t know they had had the virus and built up some immunity or some may have been vaccinated in another county or by another vendor, Homman said.
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