Bar owners spar with county officials over health orders

Jonathan Riley

CRAWFORD COUNTY, Kan. — The Crawford County Commission heard concerns Friday from local bar owners about COVID-19 mitigation enforcement — the second time this week that they’ve received such complaints from at least one owner.

Unlike Tuesday’s meeting, county health officials were present to address bar owners’ concerns and respond to them, which may have cleared up some of the issues raised. Other questions, however, appeared unresolved — with more restrictive rules for the general public rather than just business owners discussed as possible solutions.

Before either of the two bar owners who attended the meeting had a chance to speak, Dr. Tim Stebbins, the county’s public health officer, addressed claims made Tuesday by McCarthy’s Pub owner Bryan Hanson, saying some of them were inaccurate.

“August 28 we did a Zoom meeting with all the bar owners that wanted to participate, including the one that had mentioned that he has never heard from us,” Stebbins said. “The idea that there has never been a positive at that facility is also inaccurate. We definitely have a confirmed positive from that facility.”

Although the meeting Stebbins mentioned took place a few days before the county government issued its “Local Health Officer Order No. 3” in early September, he said that the county health department also later made multiple calls to McCarthy’s.

Once Hanson had an opportunity Friday to again discuss his concerns about the county’s enforcement of coronavirus mitigation rules, Commissioner Bruce Blair said many other businesses are likely “severely stressed” by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some, though, may not “want to be in the spotlight, because of the enforcement piece.”

Hanson said he agreed.

“I’ve put myself in the crosshairs, boys,” he said. “There’s other businesses I’ve talked to that said ‘I don’t think I’d want to go there,’ because they’re afraid of the repercussions. That’s a problem.”

Crawford County Deputy Public Health Officer Dr. Linda Bean said that in the case of McCarthy’s, Hanson has not asked his staff to wear masks or make other small changes to his business operations that would go a long way towards slowing the spread of COVID-19.

“There’s little things that you have not agreed to comply with,” she said.

Stebbins also responded to Hanson, saying there was “no room for debate” on whether masks are effective in mitigating the spread of the coronavirus. He also said the county health department is willing to help Hanson find a way to continue operating his bar while also following state and local public health orders.

“We want to help you,” Stebbins said. “We want you to be open. We want you to be in business, but we don’t want you harming people because you don’t want to comply with anything.”

Stebbins said Hanson would not have received a letter warning that he could be fined or his business shut down if he and his employees would simply wear masks while working.

“You don’t have the right to harm people,” Stebbins said.

“You are harming people,” Hanson said. “You don’t have that right either.”

Hanson asked if the next step in the response to the pandemic would be that people would have to show immunization papers to be allowed to enter businesses.

“Is that where we’re going? Because that’s what it feels like,” Hanson said. He also returned to what he and Blair had previously mentioned —that he is not the only business owner that feels the way he does, just one of the most vocal.

“I’m one of the ones that’s going to stick up and say it, because I know there’s a lot of other people that feel it, and they need to start showing up and saying the same thing,” he said. “You guys might get a better picture of what’s going on.”

Another bar owner who apparently feels similarly to Hanson is Bruce Mullen, co-owner of 5th Street Bar & Grill in Pittsburg, who also recently received a letter from the county and spoke at Friday’s commission meeting.

According to the letter he received, Mullen said, “seven patrons were in a group standing at the bar, talking and drinking without masks,” but he had a different view of the alleged health order violation.

A group of six or seven women, he said, some wearing masks and some not, walked into the bar and stopped to talk to people who were already seated, with police officers entering the bar right after they did. The women weren’t served, Mullen said, and as soon as the people they were there to meet finished their drinks, the whole group left.

“They were in our bar 3 minutes and 2 seconds,” he said. “The police officers were in there a minute and 19 seconds. Our bar stools are spaced. Our tables are spaced. Our staff is wearing a mask. … Our cooks are wearing a mask. And we get busted for that?”

Mullen is a member of a hospital board in Chanute, “so I’m fully aware of what’s going on, as much or more than some of you probably are,” he told the commissioners.

Mullen said Gov. Laura Kelly’s health order unfairly puts the responsibility for policing the mask mandate on business owners rather than customers.

“Where’s the public responsibility in this?” he asked. “There’s nothing in there that says ‘You don’t wear a mask, you’re going to get a $50 fine.’ You put it all on the business owner.”

Stebbins said 5th Street was in fact “doing the right thing” and attempting to comply with the health orders. The letter sent to the bar “really was a guidance,” he said, and he thanked Mullen for his mitigation efforts.

He then apologized for the letter having been sent to the bar over the actions of its patrons.

“That actually passed by me,” Stebbins said.

Mullen said, though, that he has a problem with the health orders not being enforced uniformly, giving the example of convenience stores as a type of business where police have not been making mask checks.

Stebbins then suggested the county government may soon pressure the City of Pittsburg or other cities in the county to pass their own local mask ordinances.

Health officials are “going to ask for a city meeting to help us with the ordinance for people as well,” he said.

Mullen said, however, as Hanson did at Tuesday’s meeting, that very few people or businesses are complying completely with the public health orders and mask mandates at all times.

“If we get a threatening letter, every damn convenience store, grocery store, Walmart, Home Depot better get one too,” he said, “because they’re not following the letter of the law either.”