LAWRENCE, Kan. — A few days after pictures surfaced showing crowds of University of Kansas students attending large gatherings, the Lawrence City Council took action.
In a 4-1 vote Thursday night with Mayor Jennifer Ananda casting the lone dissenting vote, the council voted to to give the police department enhanced abilities to enforce public health orders in place during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Clearly, the house parties that are happening are a problem,” Ananda said.
They’re the images seen by thousands — dozens of partygoers at a residence just off the KU campus, crowded onto the porch and in front of it, not wearing masks or social distancing.
“Obviously these house parties last weekend that were on the national news were quite a shocker,” Sally Zogry, executive director of Downtown Lawrence, said.
The images caught the attention of Lawrence commissioners, who called a special meeting Thursday for the sole purpose of making "maintaining a public nuisance" a municipal offense.
The statute defines maintaining a public nuisance as “knowingly causing or permitting a condition to exist which injures or endangers public health, safety or welfare,” according to the agenda item report.
"There were some activities that clearly violated the public health order,” Lawrence City Manager Craig Owens said. "The same health order that focuses on the number of people gathering, maintaining social distance and use of masks."
The goal is to reduce the spread of COVID-19, which has spiked in Lawrence since classes resumed last month.
“The goal is to not have these events,” Interim KU Police Chief Anthony Brixius said. “I don't think it's to punish anybody. It's certainly not to arrest anybody or to engage in a confrontation with a great amount of people."
Discipline will apply specifically to the person who is in control of the event or residence and will be handled on a case by case basis.
As early as Saturday, Lawrence police — in conjunction with KU Public Safety — will now have the authority to enforce the order through warnings, crowd dispersal, issuing citations and possibly arrests. Violators may face a misdemeanor in municipal court.
Some people who the order would impact are not pleased with the idea.
"Did anyone reach out to the college kids to get their input on this ordinance?” Chris Flowers, who gave comment at Thursday’s meeting, said, "because, I mean, it's mainly going to be enforced on them."
Lawrence City Commissioner Courtney Shipley pushed back at that notion.
"I do not consider this entirely focused on students," she said. "If there was a wedding or a funeral that this was happening at and I saw it and it got out of hand, I would have the same reaction."
The measure will sunset Dec. 31, 2021.