Kansas lawmakers look to protect businesses, debate vaccines

Posted at 5:04 PM, Mar 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-02 18:04:20-05

TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas lawmakers moved Tuesday to extend protections for businesses from lawsuits over COVID-19, while a prominent critic of Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly said the state's vaccine distribution has improved in recent weeks.

The Republican-controlled Legislature is considering several measures arising out of the pandemic or Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly's response to it. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would give businesses an extra year of protection, until March 31, 2022, from lawsuits from customers or employees who contract COVID-19 if those businesses were "in substantial compliance" with public health orders.

The measure goes next to the Senate, which also was debating a bill [] to require all of the state's local school districts to offer in-person classes to all of their students by March 26. Only a handful of the state's 286 districts don't plan to have a majority of their students back in classrooms by then, according to State Department of Education data.

The debates over those measures and others rewriting the state's emergency management laws come amid ongoing COVID-19 inoculations. Some Republican legislators contend that distribution of vaccines is going too slowly, pointing to federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Data ranking Kansas near the bottom of states for doses administered per 100,000 residents.

Kelly and state Department of Health and Environment officials contend that reporting issues have led the number of doses administered to be underreported and the department is working to fix that problem. Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, said the distribution had been a "colossal disaster" but lawmakers are getting fewer complaints now.

"You can only go up from the bottom," he said. "I think things are at least trending in the right direction, but I would still contend that's the only direction it could go," he said.

Legislators last year enacted a law to protect health care providers from being sued over medical decisions they made during the pandemic. They also protected adult care homes that followed state rules and public health directives and manufacturers that provided personal protective or medical equipment.

But the general protection from lawsuits for stores, restaurants, bars and other businesses is due to expire March 31. Supporters of the Senate Judiciary Committee's bill said extending the protection another year will give lawmakers time to see how many cases arise.

Eric Stafford, a lobbyist for the influential Kansas Chamber of Commerce, said the group hasn't heard of any cases, but, "If COVID never goes away, we would prefer that the liability protection never goes away."

Some attorneys and lawmakers argued last year that the protections provided by the Legislature and could shield some bad behavior. However, the Senate committee's measure did not immediately inspire opposition.

Meanwhile, the Department of Health and Environment continued to face scrutiny over the distribution of vaccines. A CDC report [] Tuesday ranked Kansas 46 among states for its per capital administration of doses, at 21,609 per 100,000 residents.

The CDC said at least 444,176 Kansas residents have received at least one of two required vaccine doses, or 15.2% of the state's 2.9 million residents.

Those numbers are higher than figures reported Monday by the state health department, but the CDC also reports Kansas as receiving more doses. Both put the percentage of doses administered at about 72.5%.

"The data files we are getting as of last week will help us dig in and find out where the discrepancies are happening between the various (reporting) systems," said state health department spokeswoman Ashley Jones-Wisner in a text to The Associated Press.

Some Republican legislators question the department's explanation of reporting problems, and Democratic state Rep. Louis Ruiz, of Kansas City, suggested there have been communication problems between the state and local officials

But Rep. Rui Xu, a Westwood Democrat, sees the problem as a short supply across the nation.

"Demand is far outstripping supply right now," Xu said. "As far as I'm aware, we are getting the vaccine out as soon as we're getting it, and that's all the state can do."

Some GOP lawmakers criticized Kelly for closing K-12 school buildings in March 2020 until the end of the spring semester, and a bill approved Monday [] by the Senate would allow only local schools boards to cancel in-person classes.

The bill advanced Tuesday in the Senate, requiring in-person classes by March 26, is Masterson's proposal. According to State Department of Education data, only five local districts were not planning to have a majority of their students returning to in-person classes by that date.