Lawrence ordinance makes it easier to crack down on partiers

LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — Lawrence officials are giving police more power to enforce crowd size limits and other health orders designed to stem the spread of the coronavirus after neighbors raised concerns about large house parties near the University of Kansas campus.

City commissioners voted 4-1 Thursday to approve an ordinance that uses an existing state public nuisance law to give police the authority to issue up to a $500 ticket to violators, the Lawrence Journal-World reported. The ordinance takes effect Saturday.

Commissioner Stuart Boley said that the ordinance is a way to protect the broader community from the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. The number of cases has surged in recent weeks as university students returned. The university reported 882 positive cases as of Friday.

“There are vulnerable people in our community that are relying on us to do what we can to ensure their safety during this pandemic, and that’s what we need to do,” Boley said.

Local officials said the goal isn’t to issue a lot of tickets, but to get people to comply with health orders, particularly one that prohibits gatherings of 45 or more people if it is not possible to maintain 6 feet (1.83 meters) of distance.

Interim Police Chief Anthony Brixius said police will first ask people at a gathering that violates the health order to disperse. A ticket will be issued to the party hosts only if people do not comply or later regroup in the same area.

Police also will work with the KU Public Safety Office, so if the hosts of a gathering that violates health order are students, they will also be subject to discipline by the university.

Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health announced Friday in a news release that staff will begin conducting compliance checks at restaurants, bars and entertainment venues with liquor licenses to ensure they are following an order requiring them to stop serving alcohol by 9 p.m. and to close by 10 p.m. Only food carryout or delivery is allowed after 10 p.m.

Douglas County Health Officer Dr. Thomas Marcellino issued the order in response to a large number of COVID-19 cases stemming from bar environments.

On Friday, Kansas health officials reported 1,415 new cases since Wednesday, for a total of 52,285 across the state. Kansas also had 10 new deaths, raising that number to 596 since the pandemic began. The actual number of cases is thought to be higher because of a lack of testing, particularly early on, and because people can be infected without feeling ill.

Meanwhile, top leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature agreed Thursday to Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s plan for allocating the remaining $290 million in federal coronavirus relief funds received by the state, which totaled $1.25 billion.

Her plan set aside nearly $53 million for coronavirus testing and $10 million for personal protective equipment for nursing homes. But it also set aside about $75 million for future emergencies.

“These funds will go to programs that will keep our economy open and keep Kansans safe,” spokeswoman Lauren Fitzgerald said in an email Friday to The Associated Press.