Restaurants and other businesses reopen as governor’s statewide stay-at-home order expires; health secretary got a haircut, too; Ellsworth prison employee tests positive for COVID-19; inmate advocates urge action to avoid further outbreaks

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TOPEKA — Kansas residents eager to flee the confines of their homes after six weeks of state-imposed restrictions got their first glimpse Monday of what life will be like in a post-pandemic world.


Gov. Laura Kelly’s stay-at-home order expired Sunday night as she moved the state into the first part of a three-phase plan to reopen Kansas and breathe life into an economy on life support. Some businesses, including restaurants, opened their doors for the first time in weeks, with the addition of social distancing protocols.


The transition included a passing of the baton to county health officials, who have the option of imposing tighter restrictions based on local infections, hospitalizations and deaths from the coronavirus.


Statewide, health officials have attributed 136 deaths to COVID-19 and recorded more than 5,200 infections. If daily numbers continue their downward trend, the governor will advance the state to phase two in mid-May. At that point, public gatherings may increase from 10 to 30 individuals, and places like gyms and hair salons could reopen.


For now, said Amanda Miller, employee at Apron Strings Kitchen Store in Hutchinson, it doesn’t feel like much has changed.


"We’re still taking orders over the phone, and we can deliver orders," Miller said.


The store didn’t need to be reconfigured to allow for social distancing guidelines.


"We have a big floor plan so we have plenty of space for people to keep their distance," Miller said.


The biggest change is that employees are wearing cloth face masks, she said, and there is hand sanitizer at the counter. Also, the kitchen store isn’t offering food samples like it normally would.


Restaurants were preparing to open with reduced hours, less staff, altered menus, new seating arrangements and the addition of Plexiglas barriers.


The Wheel Barrel, which slings grilled cheese sandwiches in North Topeka, was preparing to reopen Tuesday with crowd control measures and a sanitation station in place.


Jennifer Bohlander, who owns the restaurant with her husband, said business owners are under pressure to pay bills while keeping employees and patrons from getting sick.


"These are really hard decisions to make," Bohlander said. "Every business owner is caught between a rock and a hard place."


Hair peace


Angry barbers and stylists across the state wanted to know who cut the governor's hair.


Rep. Cheryl Helmer, R-Mulvane, demanded an inquiry.


Last week, The Topeka Capital-Journal revealed there had been no clandestine mission by Kelly to circumvent her own rules. In a conversation with The Capital-Journal’s editorial advisory board, she said her husband and his steady hand were responsible for the trim.


That report led some on social media to wonder whether such questions would ever be asked of a male political leader.


Enter Lee Norman, the secretary for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and officer in the Kansas Army National Guard, who injected levity into the conversation through his Twitter account.


"I’m devastated," Norman wrote. "I will be on Army duty this weekend with a fresh high and tight haircut, which I had today and nobody noticed. Sigh. Always a bridesmaid and never a bride, I guess!"


So, who cut Norman's hair?


"Me," Norman said. "Dog grooming clippers. Woof!"


Prison infections


The Kansas Department of Corrections announced Monday a third inmate has died from COVID-19 at the state-run prison in Lansing, and the Hutchinson and Ellsworth prisons confirmed their first cases.


Nearly 400 inmates and more than 80 staff members have tested positive for the coronavirus at Lansing Correctional Facility, where an outbreak has forced the prison into a two-week lockdown.


Health officials were working through the weekend to test every Lansing inmate. Earlier, preliminary test results indicated 75% of inmates had the virus but weren't showing symptoms.


Defense attorneys and other inmate advocates have called for the early release of prisoners who committed less serious crimes or who have just months left on their sentence.


Jennifer Roth, a Topeka attorney with the Kansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Tricia Rojo Bushnell, executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project, Heather Cessna, executive director of Kansas Board of Indigents’ Defense Services, and Melody Brannon, federal public defender for Kansas, pleaded in March for officials to protect inmates at state prisons.


"What we feared would happen, did happen," Roth said.


Kelly has indicated her administration is reviewing candidates for early release who have viable plans for re-entering their communities.


"They waited a month," Roth said, "so their failure to act promptly to release people led to them saying they couldn't release people. It's maddening. That said, there is still time for the governor and KDOC to take action to prevent other facilities from becoming the next Lansing. The powers-that-be have a chance to do better. They must do better."


Three inmates have tested positive at the Wichita Work Release Facility, as well as a staff member at the Kansas Juvenile Correctional Complex and a staff member at the El Dorado Correctional Facility. At the state-run women's prison in Topeka, three staff members and two inmates have tested positive.


An inmate who tested positive at Hutchinson Correctional Facility had recently arrived from Lansing. The man was placed in isolation upon arrival and returned to Lansing after he was diagnosed with COVID-19.


The positive test of a staff member at Ellsworth Correctional Facility was the first confirmed case in Ellsworth County. The agency said health officials would conduct contact tracing to identify any staff or inmates who were in close contact with the infected individual. Corrections staff also will monitor staff and inmates for symptoms.


"I want to reassure the community that we will be diligent in our efforts to mitigate the effects this virus has on our staff and population," said corrections secretary Jeff Zmuda. "We are working very closely with KDHE and will continue to follow their guidance on the best ways to manage a virus like COVID-19 within the prison setting."