State considers sitting only in bars; Lexington closely watching virus after “worst’ month

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WTVQ) – Local and state leaders are closely monitoring activities at bars and restaurants as the state’s economic re-opening continues this week, watching out for activity that could spark the kind of surges that have scaled back re-openings in other states.

One step could be making bars require customers to sit rather than standing together in large groups. And the city is about to respond with a public relations push to encourage the wearing of masks or “masking” to avoid having to slow its reopening.

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Those and other issues, such as preparing for the return of 30,000 students to college campuses in the city in six weeks, are just some of the concerns city health officials are facing just days after Fayette County has by far its worst single-moth since the coronavirus outbreak.

“The governor said in our phone conversation today that bars are something they are watching because that seems to be the root of some of the problems we are seeing in other areas,” Lexington Mayor Linda Gorton told members of the Urban County Council during a briefing Wednesday.

“The governor said they may require that if you go in a bar you have to sit down…they don’t want to but they are willing to,put strict rules in place if they see things getting out of control,” Gorton said of Gov. Andy Beshear.

The warnings come heading into what is expected to be a busy July 4 weekend just days after bars were allowed to open at 50 percent capacity and restaurants expanded to 50 percent capacity.

And that comes after a June in which Fayette County more than doubled its number of coronavirus cases.

Health Department Director Dr. Kraig Hambaugh said “the numbers aren’t looking that good” and gave Urban Council members some grim stats:

— Of the county’s 1,563 total cases, more than half were confirmed in June alone as the department saw record numbers of cases, deaths and an increase in hospitalizations. “We had three of our largest one-day totals in just the last week,” he said;

— Of the 29 deaths, 16 came in June, including a 30-year-old woman this week who had no underlying conditions. Ten of those came from two nursing homes that have become ‘hotspots’;

— The department is seeing more and more young people being diagnosed with the disease, although many of the cases are mild

“The concern is these cases spreading to other people and becoming more severe. Where we need to watch is we don’t want to get into a situation where people get really sick and start filling up our hospital beds…If that starts, that’s when we have to think about slowing down (the reopening),” Hambaugh said;

— Of the new cases, many are originating in nursing homes and the Hispanic community. The Hispanic community makes up 7 percent of the city’s population but 27 percent of the coronavirus cases. African-Americans make up 14 percent of the population but 24 percent of the cases.

Hambaugh said the monitoring done by his department is “complaint driven,” meaning the staff doesn’t “patrol” businesses but does respond to complaints from citizens. It does have some leverage with restaurants which have food service permits and inspections.

“We can go in restaurants because of the permits, but we don’t have as much with bars. We don’t have people out on patrol, it’s just complaint driven,” he said.

“These are the places that are blowing up the numbers in other communities,” Council member Chuck Ellinger II observed, while at the same time recognizing the city has few legal recourses to strictly enforce rules.

Gorton said she was about to start a major push to encourage wearing masks and asked Council members to do the same in their districts on social media, newsletters and in “conversations.”

Getting more people to wear them is critical in both the short- and long-run.

“What we’re seeing is a lot of people not wearing them,” she said, noting newscasts are filled daily with stories about what happens when communities let down their guard.

Having the city push the message might have more of an impact, noted Council member James Brown.

“It might hit home harder,” he said, suggesting the public needs to hear a new voice rather than just Gov. Andy Beshear and the health department.

“We’re going to try to do it in as many ways as we can,” Gorton added, saying she also was going to push more city workers wearing masks on the job to set an example.

“We need to try to set an example,” echoed Council member Mark Swanson.

Increasing the percentage of people wearing masks and working with the University of Kentucky to get more students to do so when they return, especially off-campus, wil be critical.

“I’m not sure there is a magic bullet,” Hambaugh said. “But we are going to have to work with the city and the university on students….There is no 100 percent safe method when out in public, but the sooner we realize the issues and start having conversations, the better.”

“We are going to have to stress masks,” he repeated.

The discussion prompted Brown, Swanson and Ellinger to question whether the city needed to slow down some reopenings, even if it did so just on its own facilities.

For instance. Brown suggested opening one or two basketball courts at some of the city’s larger basketball complexes in conjunction with opening single courts in small neighborhood parks. He said he fears the single courts will be “overwhelmed” with players, increasing the risk of spreading the virus.

By having courts at some of the larger complexes, it may better spread out the use.

“It’s starting to get serious here in Lexington,” Brown said of the outbreak and his concerns.