By Al Cross
Kentucky Health News
Bars will have to close and restaurants must cut their indoor capacity to 25 percent, from 50 percent, under Gov. Andy Beshear’s latest orders to control the surge of the coronavirus in Kentucky.
Beshear said Monday he was acting to protect lives, maintain the economy and get children back in classrooms. He also announced that he was recommending to public and private schools that they should wait until at least the third week of August to begin in-person classes.
“You can’t do that with an uncontrolled surge in the virus,” he said, adding later, “If we see a lot of early cases in schools it will be harder to get all of our schools open for in-person classes in a way that it works for those families.”
All three announcements were expected, because Beshear had been laying the groundwork for about a week. He had voiced hope that his July 9 order to wear masks would stem the surge that began that week, but it continued largely unabated, except a typical drop in the number of new cases on Sunday, attributable to limited testing.
The state reported 522 more cases of the virus Monday, raising its seven-day rolling average to 611. At the start of the month, it was 220.
Counties with more than five new cases on the daily report were Jefferson, 185; Fayette, 93; Daviess, 22; Warren, 21; Oldham, 19; Barren, 12; Jessamine, 9; Boyle, Hardin and Kenton, 7 each; and Boyd and Bullitt, 6 each.
Also going the wrong way was Beshear’s other key metric: the percentage of Kentuckians testing positive for the virus. The seven-day rolling average is 5.51 percent, the highest it has been since testing was largely limited to people with symptoms of the covid-19 disease.
“There has been a steady increase over time,” Beshear said. “We have to start to see that coming down.”
He announced nine more deaths from covid-19, bringing the state’s death toll to 709, and warned that deaths will increase because cases have: “Deaths can trail the cases by weeks, sometimes even more.”
Against the background of an issue that has become politically divisive, the Democratic governor of a state that generally votes Republican put himself on the same page as the national Republican administration, and asked constituents to do likewise.
He said he was following recommendations of President Trump’s administration, which came to Kentucky Sunday in the person of Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
“They and we agreed with over 74 counties in their red or yellow zone, that this virus is now escalating and spreading so much statewide, that statewide action is necessary. That’s the position of the Trump administration; that’s the position of this state government,” Beshear said, adding later, “We also agree on steps that have to be taken.”
Beshear had already taken two of the recommended steps, the mask mandate and reducing to 10 from 50 the number of people allowed at social, non-commercial gatherings. He said the new orders would be in effect for two weeks, with the hope that all the measures together will stop the surge. But he implicitly acknowledged that may be difficult.
He started Monday’s briefing by saying, “We all have to start out with believing and understanding that this is real, that the virus doesn’t just go away, and wherever you live in Kentucky, and you can look at the maps, the virus is spreading, and spreading significantly in your community. We all need to be singing from the same sheet of music.”
Health Commissioner Steven Stack summed up the Beshear administration’s case: “It’s not politics, it’s not ideology; it’s just science. When we come together, we spread the virus. … Masks are what keep Kentucky open; to keep Kentucky open, wear a mask when you go out.”
Beshear said Birx told him that the conversation they had Sunday was like those she had with Florida and Texas, which Beshear used as examples of what Kentucky needs to avoid. “At one point, Florida and Texas were just where we are today,” he said. “We can look at what’s happened to them and know that we absolutely have to act.”
Beshear said the risk of harm that would come from not acting was greater than the harm that will come to bars, some of which may not survive closure, and restaurants, whose success may depend on outdoor seating.
“We are going to work with our cites and localities to do what we can administratively to allow that outside seating to expand,” he said, adding later, “Everybody, please order a lot of takeout these next two weeks.”
He said the orders are in the businesses’ long-term economic interests. “If we don’t do this now with our restaurants it’ll result in longer-term closures,” he said. “I believe most of our restaurants are trying really hard.”
Beshear showed a photo of what he said were “hundreds of people, way closer than six feet, not a mask in this picture at all,” Saturday night in downtown Lexington. “There’s plenty of blame to go around,” he said, not just to proprietors and customers: “There’s been not enough enforcement out there; we can admit to that.”
Asked if local health departments are still in “education mode,” in which they use information and persuasion rather than take action against businesses that don’t enforce masking and social distancing, Beshear indicated that they need to step up their game: “We’re at a point now where we gotta stop this thing. … We can’t let ‘em do it twice.”
Asked about the perception of unfairness created by protests that violate several of his orders, Beshear said, “We can control what we can control. I need people to do the right thing in their homes and in their backyards. … We’re gonna fail in this if we say that guy over there isn’t wearing a facial covering so I’m not gonna wear mine either.”
And what if his latest orders don’t stem the tide? “We’ll be looking at all options.”
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.