LAWRENCE, Kan. — A rural eastern Kansas county has ordered businesses to keep track of their in-person customers by recording phone numbers and arrival and departure times during the pandemic — a move that has led to a federal lawsuit.
The publisher of the local newspaper and a restaurant owner in Linn County both want the order blocked, contending it authorizes warrantless searches and seizures.
Health authorities across the region have been trying to strike a balance between public safety and personal liberty as Kansas and Missouri have begun to relax coronavirus-related lockdowns. The lawsuit represents the latest struggle over rules aimed at containing the virus, which has infected nearly 17,000 across the two states.
Linn County Health Officer Jay Allen, a physician, on May 1 ordered health clinics, dentists, pharmacies, banks, hardware stores, restaurants, retail stores, day care centers and other businesses to begin maintaining a list of their in-person customers for a minimum of 30 days, according to a copy of the directive attached to the lawsuit.
“This information must be kept and made available to the Linn County Health Department upon request for the purposes of Contact Tracing,” the order says, referring to the practice of identifying and quarantining the close contacts of people who test positive for the coronavirus.
The county, south of suburban Kansas City, has five COVID-19 cases, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
In a complaint filed Sunday in U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas, attorneys for Jackie Taylor, publisher and editor of the Linn County News, and Linda Jo Hisel, the owner of Nana Jo’s restaurant in La Cygne, say the order allows officials to search businesses multiple times a day for months.
They also suggest the county would have to produce lists of customers under the Kansas Open Records Act, allowing the public to see who the plaintiffs are meeting with and for how long — including visits to medical providers.
“Constitutional rights do not get suspended during a pandemic. There is a clear process by which governments can obtain business and personal records. Unfortunately, Linn County has ignored that process and put the basic rights of its citizens in serious jeopardy,” said Samuel MacRoberts, litigation director for Kansas Justice Institute, who is suing on Taylor and Hisel’s behalf.
The Linn County Commission, a defendant in the lawsuit, met Monday morning. At the meeting, county counselor Gary Thompson told commissioners the county had not yet been served.
“Until we’ve been served, we really won’t make any comment one way or another about any of it,” Thompson said.
The order is the latest flashpoint over public health and personal freedom in Kansas.
A federal judge temporarily blocked an order from Gov. Laura Kelly limiting in-person religious services to 10 people. The order later expired. A McPherson barber also said last week he received an arrest warrant for reopening despite a statewide prohibition on barbershops operating during phase one of Kelly’s reopening plan, which lasts for at least one more week.
It also bears some resemblance to a voluntary request Kansas City has made to businesses. As part of Mayor Quinton Lucas’s “10/10/10” rules, religious institutions and businesses where patrons sit down for more than 10 minutes are asked to maintain records of who was present.
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