Business owners say clock was ticking before Wyandotte County eased restrictions

Vicki Kobialka, owner of Kabi's in Bonner Springs, joined other business owners in a public forum last month to voice concerns about the disparity in health restrictions among counties in the Kansas City area. (Kaylie McLaughlin for Kansas Reflector)

WYANDOTTE COUNTY — If you asked Vicki Kobialka in January, the limits on bars and restaurants from a local health order imposed in Wyandotte County were going to kill her business.

Her bar, Kobi’s, a small establishment in Bonner Springs, couldn’t seat guests at full capacity and couldn’t stay open as late as other bars just a few minutes north and a few minutes south. 

“COVID-19 has been bad for everyone and every business has suffered,” Kobialka said during a county commission hearing last month. 

Since March, she said, she has laid-off half of her employees, and if business doesn’t improve, she may have to consider closing the bar one or two days a week to cut down expenses. 

Capacity limits are the standard operating procedure and something most county governments in the Kansas City metro area could agree on from the start. The 10 p.m. closing time for bars and restaurants in Wyandotte County, however, wasn’t the case across the board — definitely not in Johnson and Leavenworth counties, where restaurants could stay open longer or had no time restrictions at all.

That inconsistency wasn’t just unfair, Kobialka said. It was driving business out of the county.

Several bar and restaurant owners spoke at length during last month’s county commission virtual public forum, describing how “mom and pop” shops like Stacy Damron’s Coach Lite Club and Melissa Nead’s The Dotte Spot just couldn’t compete with bars in Johnson County that were permitted to stay open until midnight.

“The clock is ticking for many small businesses in Wyandotte County — we are all on life support now,” Nead said. 

But it wasn’t that simple. The Unified Government’s Public Health Department couldn’t just change its COVID-19 rules without considering the science and information available, said Allen Greiner, the Wyandotte County medical officer. Much of the work he does is a balancing act. For one thing, the decision-making calculus of disease mitigation for a community has to consider other elements besides public health, he said. 

“(We’re) trying to be balanced between having businesses that can thrive and be successful, but also trying to control the spread of the virus,” Greiner said. “There’s been a lot of talk about businesses and whether the restrictions on businesses were so harmful to society and so harmful to the economy that they offset any gains that were being made by reducing the spread of COVID.” 

On top of the testimony from local business owners, the local COVID-19 data suggested the spread of COVID-19 in the community was declining and hospitalizations were trending downward. Additional data gathered by the health department also indicated COVID-19 transmission wasn’t occurring in bars and restaurants, but through large family gatherings and other private events.

“When we became more restrictive, it was because the data was suggesting we needed to be more restrictive,” said Kansas City, Kansas, Mayor David Alvey.

After Alvey did some of his own spot-checks at restaurants and bars to gauge the level of compliance with other COVID-19 restrictions, like capacity limits and physical distancing in indoor spaces, he said he supported the relaxation of the closing time restrictions. 

“If we only use the data to become more restrictive then I think that loses credibility as a guiding principle, but the fact is we did follow the data to become less restricted,” Alvey said. 

Since the 12 a.m. closing time for bars and restaurants took effect at midnight Jan. 13 and in the weeks that followed, Wyandotte County and the KC metro area have seen overall decreases in positivity rates, number of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths. If that steady decline doesn’t stick around, Greiner said, the health department maintains the power to institute more strict COVID-19 prevention rules.

In the end, Alvey said, it’s in the best interest of a local business to follow COVID-19 rules because failure to comply will be met with punitive action, but COVID-19 spread from those bars and restaurants will reflect poorly on a business’ brand as well. 

“They didn’t want the word to go out that, ‘Hey, if you go to that bar or restaurant, you’re not going to be safe.’ They don’t want that story being told,” Alvey said.