Aggieville will have to wait for the 42nd St. Patrick’s Day Parade as two annual Manhattan events were canceled Thursday due to novel coronavirus concerns.
The Manhattan City Commission in a special session voted 4 to 1 to revoke previously approved special events permits for the parade as well as the St. Patrick’s Day 10k and 2 mile races. The move is an effort to reduce large public gatherings amid the COVID-19 outbreak the World Health Organization has labeled a global pandemic.
Only four cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in Kansas, all in Johnson County. One Wyandotte County man in his 70s with underlying health conditions died Thursday as a result of infection, prompting Gov. Laura Kelly to declare a state of emergency. Kansas State University Thursday moved classes online until further notice, which Riley County Health Department Director Julie Gibbs says was a good move.
“We do have a plan in place if this were to get a little worse,” says Gibbs. “We’re prepared as a county, but I can’t stress enough that we want to stay at the status of low risk so we need to be looking at proactive measure such as what we’re discussing here tonight.”
Aggieville Business Association Executive Director Dennis Cook asked that the events be allowed to take place. He questioned whether outdoor events should warrant the same treatment as high volume indoor events. Cook also made the case that the parade is relatively short and that they took extra precautions around the races such as canceling the award ceremony.
“We represent about 110 small businesses,” Cook says. “These kind of events are crucial for them — that’s why we’ve held them for 41 years.”
Gibbs says it all comes down to proximity, noting that these events can get pretty packed. Commissioner Linda Morse agreed.
“We don’t want our whole community to be concerned and we’re just pretending that [it’s] business as usual,” says Morse. “Because it’s really not business as usual. We have to be responsible.”
Mayor Usha Reddi acknowledged there will be economic impact as a result of the decision to cancel the parade and races as well K-State recommending students stay home, saying the city will feel it in their budget at the end of the year as well. But Reddi pointed to the number of organizations and cities around the state and country suspending gatherings as a sign that Manhattan needs to take this precaution.
“If those are decisions that have been made knowing that’s going to happen, the threat must be pretty high,” says Reddi. “And if we look the other way and say the threat is not high enough, why are you going through all of this — then we are taking a chance that nobody is going to get ill and nobody is going to die in our community because of the coronavirus.”
“I’m not going to take that risk.”
Two commissioners, though, saw the decision as government overreach. Commissioner Mark Hatesohl was the sole opposing vote, calling the move knee-jerk and the situation in general overblown for the youthful and people in good health — who he says will make up the vast majority of those in attendance. He says the decision is out of the city’s purview and should be left to the private organizers and those choosing to attend.
“We’re taking the choice of the American people out of the equation here when there’s not really any reason,” says Hatesohl. “We’re not in a health crisis, there’s nobody saying ‘oh my god, it’s in town, it’s creeping up the street.'”
Hatesohl questioned the positive health benefits of rescinding the event permits to prevent large gatherings as he still anticipates typical numbers of students patronizing Aggieville bars and participating in the upcoming Fake Paddy’s Day festivities.
Mayor Pro Tempore Wynn Butler agreed on that point, also calling the item overreach. Even so, Butler voted in favor for revocation of the permits to calm worries among the public.
“The panic has got to stop and some people are going to feel good about it,” says Butler. “This is one of those feel-good ordinances — it’s not going to make any difference, but it makes you feel better.”
“Don’t panic. It’s not a pandemic — not in Manhattan, Kansas.”
Commissioner Aaron Estabrook disagreed, saying he thinks they know too little to make claims of overreach. He further said he thinks most people will be unaffected, but precautions need to be taken to mitigate exposure for the percentage of the population that will experience complications or ultimately die from the virus.
“If Commissioner Hatesohl’s right, it’s all for nothing and that’s great and we can look back and say ‘Commissioner Estabrook, what were you thinking?'” Estabrook said. “But if it’s not and we’re not prepared, now the time’s to try to get prepared.”
“We can’t control a virus that may or may not evolve, may or may not come to Manhattan — what we can control is in front of us.”
Riley County Police are also taking precautions to avoid spreading illnesses within their workforce amid COVID-19 concerns.
Director Dennis Butler gave an update Thursday to Manhattan City Commissioners, saying they’re using health department guidelines and precautions.
“We’re prepared to do many things as far as letting them work from home if they can,” says Butler. “If they’re sick, we’re encouraging them to stay away. If they’ve been around somebody sick and they think it could affect our workplace, we don’t want them to come and share that with us.”
But not all of the work done by RCPD can go remote. Butler says they’ll still need patrol and corrections officers to show up every day as well as dispatchers.
We’re going to continue to do our jobs,” Butler says. “When 911 is called, you should expect an officer to respond. And if we find ourselves in a crisis because of this we will certainly let you know and the community know and we have other options in place to try to deal with that if it does happen.”