New COVID restrictions

As coronavirus cases surge across Kentucky and the number of counties in the most dangerous level continue to increase — despite three weeks of targeted recommendations to slow the virus's spread — Gov. Andy Beshear issued new restrictions on Wednesday.

“Action is unpopular, but inaction is deadly,” Beshear said at his daily briefing. 

The actions include shutting down in-person schooling on Monday, stopping indoor service in bars and restaurants at 5 p.m. Friday, and placing further limits on at-home social gatherings. 

The Democratic governor's new rules were met with criticism from Republican legislative leaders, who have already said they will consider limiting the governor's emergency powers during the upcoming 2021 session. They criticized Beshear for not including them in any pandemic planning, and asked for Kentucky-specific data to support his actions.

Senate President Robert Stivers said: “This is the first time in eight months that the governor has briefed us, and make no mistake, it was a briefing, not a collaboration. The decisions today, made solely by the governor, were to limit and restrict many businesses that may not survive based on what was proposed. We have not been shown any data that would draw a rational basis to limit Thanksgiving in your home to eight people when you can go to a private venue with twenty-five people. Nor were we presented any data that justifies a blanket policy to close public and private schools, especially when we are seeing the loss of a year of educational opportunities and destructive effects to the mental health of our youth. Kentucky is in a crisis, this is real, and the governor needs to start consulting with us for the sake of the commonwealth."

House Speaker David Osborne said Health Commissioner Steven Stack gave them an informative, 20-minute presentation, but “The governor answered questions for less than 10 minutes and failed to provide any contact-tracing-based data on where cases are spreading in Kentucky. He must be prepared to directly answer the same questions we face from our constituents every single day. While we take this virus seriously, we will not be cover for his unilateral decision-making. Working with the legislature means more than calling us an hour before making his pre-determined edicts public. This kind of move is not leadership; it’s misleading.”

Beshear pointed to studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Johns Hopkins University and Stanford University to show that the virus is spreading in restaurants and bars, and said the Barren River District Health Department has reported 46 clusters involving 189 virus cases in restaurants and bars in the district, headquartered in Bowling Green.

 
 
“This virus spreads where people congregate and take off their masks,” Beshear said. “It’s really unfair but it’s not me being unfair, it’s the virus.”

He declined to comment on his meeting with the legislators, saying he had agreed to not discuss it until after the briefing in exchange for them keeping the information embargoed. 
 
Beshear's executive order says that starting Monday all public and private K-12 schools are to cease in-person instruction, with middle and high schools to remain in remote or virtual instruction until at least Jan. 4. Elementaries will be allowed to resume in-person instruction Dec. 7 if they follow all "Healthy at School" guidance and the county is not in the red zone, which signifies the highest range of infection.

Other new restrictions include: 

  • Restaurants and bars — No indoor food or beverage consumption; carryout and delivery encouraged; socially distanced outdoor seating allowed.
  • Private social gatherings — Up to eight people from a maximum of two households
  • Gyms, fitness centers, pools and other indoor recreation facilities — 33% capacity limit, maintained at six feet apart; no group classes, team practices or competitions; masks must be worn while exercising. This does not include college or professional athletics. 
  • Venues, event spaces and theaters — Each room will be limited to 25 people. This applies to indoor weddings and funerals.
  • Professional services — Office-based businesses limited to 33% of employees; all employees who are able to work from home must do so; all businesses that can close to the public must do so.
Most of the new requirements go into effect at 5 p.m. Friday and last through 11:59 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 13. 
 
To help offset the impact on restaurants and bars, Beshear is allocating $40 million in federal relief funds to provide qualifying businesses $10,000 for various expenses, with a maximum award of $20,000 to those with more than one location.  Publicly traded companies and businesses that make at least half their sales via drive-thru will not be eligible. (A typical McDonald's restaurant got about 75% of its revenue from drive-thru before the pandemic.)
 
Applications for relief money are scheduled to open Nov. 30, will be processed in the order they're received, and will close Dec. 18. Funds will be awarded until they run out. Businesses that receive the awards are required to remain in compliance with all public health orders, Beshear's office said.

The release noted that earlier this month, Beshear waived for a year renewal fees for alcoholic-beverage licenses of Kentucky restaurants, bars and temporary venues to help during the pandemic.
 
Beshear said Wednesday's new rules do not further restrict retailers, "but that is based on a commitment to re-up the mask mandate and the enforcement of it."
 
"Folks, none of these decisions are easy; we ran out of easy choices and decisions a long time ago. Every one of these weighs heavily, certainly on me as I recommend interventions to the governor, as I work to lead the public health department," Stack said.
 
At that point, he choked up and said, "It's been months since I got a little emotional over this. But folks, we've got to do this. And we can overcome it. And we know we can overcome it because we've done it two other times."

Beshear said he has no plans to shut down the economy. 
 
"This is not and there will not be a shutdown. Our economy is open and there will be no categorizing businesses as essential or non-essential and asking them to close," as was the case in the spring, he said.
 
"We're announcing significant but surgical and targeted steps designed to slow the virus and protect our people. These steps range from three to six weeks in duration and are designed to have the maximum impact. with as little disruption, although there will certainly be disruption, as possible."
 
Beshear said the new restrictions should be easier to enforce than his earlier ones since they largely involve establishments that require a license to be open. He said he is also authorizing counties to enforce the order.
 
Kentucky Health News is an independent news service of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Kentucky, with support from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.

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