PITTSBURG, Kan. — Crawford County health officials said this week that they are not in favor of a renewed coronavirus lockdown that would force extensive temporary closures of businesses, but may soon begin more aggressively enforcing COVID-19 mitigation rules on individual businesses that routinely violate them.

The Pittsburg Area Chamber of Commerce hosted a forum via Facebook Live on Thursday to give business owners a chance to hear from county health officials and ask them questions about expectations under the current coronavirus mitigation guidelines.

Dr. Tim Stebbins, the county’s public health officer, said Thursday that for the last seven weeks the county has seen between 77 and 108 new positive COVID-19 cases per week. At Friday’s county commission meeting, he said the county had exceeded that amount this week, with 122 new cases. Area hospitals and medical facilities are also reaching capacity, and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment has become overwhelmed in its contact tracing efforts and delegated those responsibilities back to county health departments.

With no new major policy changes or public health orders in place, the trend of dozens or more than 100 new cases identified locally each week can be expected to continue, Stebbins said, which “creates opportunity for harm in our community.”

Stebbins emphasized that wearing masks in public places is required by law as outlined in Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive order 20-52.

“Now if you’re in your own office then that doesn’t apply, if you’re by yourself,” he said. “But if you are front facing to the public — food service workers preparing food — the governor’s order dictates that a mask must be worn, and in fact it says in all public spaces — indoors always and outdoors in public spaces if you can’t maintain six foot of distance.”

Some businesses may be frustrated that their competitors are not following health guidelines as closely as they are, and they may be losing customers to those competitors as a result, Chamber President Blake Benson said.

Stebbins said next steps the county is looking at taking include stricter enforcement of public health requirements. Businesses would not be immediately shut down for an initial violation, he said, but he is working with the county commissioners and county attorney on setting up a system of escalating penalties. These would include an initial warning followed by two fines before the county would potentially seek to close an individual business through a court order — although “we don’t want to get there,” Stebbins said.

“I think by and large, businesses want to be successful; we want them to be successful,” he said. “They just don’t necessarily understand the mitigation or how it can work within their system, and we’ve actually gone into several businesses and helped them through the mitigation process so they can maximize their customer base, customer service, and minimize the impact on their business while still being safe and breaking the chain of transmission. Now, in restaurants it’s a little harder because you’re closing down some table space sometimes, but we’ve had businesses that have used the plexiglass around the booths and were able to open up all of those.”

Stebbins cited the local Applebee’s, where he recently ate, as an example of a business that is doing a good job of taking public health requirements seriously and using appropriate mitigation procedures.

“They’ve got every other booth, every other table across from the booths set up, all of their servers were wearing masks. As a health officer, knowing the challenges and how devastating this disease can be, I’m comfortable eating there, and we’ve done it several times in the past couple months because they have the mitigation strategies in place and I see them doing it. I feel safer,” Stebbins said.

“And I think all businesses maybe should hear that point because there is a part of our population that is not going into places because they are afraid, and utilizing the mitigation, showing the public that you are trying to prevent the spread of COVID-19, that you’re doing the right thing, that you’re looking out for their well-being, they’ll feel comfortable, they’ll go into your business.”

Dr. Linda Bean, the county’s deputy public health officer, also participated in Thursday’s forum, answering a question about when employers should ask their employees to quarantine.

“I think the main thing is that they work with the health department about quarantine, not only who should be quarantined but also timeline and how long and all of that,” Bean said.

Bean and Stebbins also discussed the county’s “gating criteria,” which measure the severity of the COVID-19 situation on a week-to-week basis, and Bean additionally acknowledged that even if a business is doing its best to follow the health department’s rules, enforcement can be a challenge, especially when it comes to customers.

“I think one of the main things that we want to say for the business owners is you’re not going to be able to police everybody who comes into your business and make them wear a mask, or kick them out, or whatever,” she said. “But what you can focus on is on you and your staff first of all, and sometimes it’s just asking: ‘We would ask that you please wear a mask.’ And most people probably will.”

Stebbins similarly said that the county is not aiming to impose unnecessarily severe restrictions on businesses.

“We’re not here to take away a person’s right; we’re not here to impact a business negatively; we’re not here to make things hard on anybody. We’re here to get the word out, to tell people what can help them. Remember we all live and work in this community, we are all part of this community. The people that are impacted are our friends, our family, our neighbors, our kids, our businesses, and so we ask you please, just embrace these ideas,” he said.

“Embrace the mitigation strategies that we’re recommending and we can together break that chain, right, and that’s ultimately what we’re trying to do: break the chain of transmission so we can get out of this.”