By Allen Edmonds firstname.lastname@example.org
Belton’s city government added another chapter to its ongoing list of misadventures this week with a dramatic 4-4 vote to overturn Mayor Jeff Davis’ decision to label the city’s golf course an “essential business” and reopen Eagles’ Landing to the public more than 10 days after closing it – as well as other city offices and facilities, including the High Blue Wellness Center – in response to the COVID 19 pandemic.
The council met in a special electronic meeting, broadcast live over YouTube, Thursday night after the minimum 24-hour notice was given to the public.
Agenda items included purchases for emergency decontamination equipment for the fire department ambulances, as well as other time-sensitive approvals – mostly routine and all passing easily with minimum discussion.
But after a week of vigorous public debate, Councilmember Stephanie Davidson raised the golf course issue, expressing dissatisfaction with the order to reopen the facility.
She said with a newborn at home and family member with underlying health concerns, it made no sense for the city to be increasing the opportunity for community spread of the virus, rather than decreasing it.
Councilmember Dave Clark then said he was the one that had asked for the course to be opened, and described his thought process in doing so.
“It concerned me that I could go to any of my neighboring areas – Kansas City or Johnson County, but I couldn’t go to my own city golf course to play,” he said.
Davis had ordered the facility closed on March 16 as the seriousness of the pandemic began to become obvious throughout the United States.
Cass County currently has 21 active cases, up from 8 last week at this time. A 70-year-old Belton woman died after being diagnosed with COVID-19 on Tuesday.
Until a week ago Wednesday, a Frequently Asked Questions document provided by the Cass County Health Department specifically listed golf courses as a “non-essential business.” A current version of the document, posted on the agency’s website, no longer describes golf courses as “non-essential.”
According to Sarah Czech, health educator with the department, “it is important to note that nothing in the Order itself has changed but our interpretation of a few specific cases has changed since the FAQ was first published on March 23.”
“After consulting with surrounding jurisdictions about what types of services they were deeming essential vs. non-essential per their emergency orders, we determined that golf is a low exposure-risk physical activity,” Czech said.
“Typically, golfers bring their own equipment, they engage in the activity solo or in very small groups, and it is an activity that can be done while maintaining social distancing. With that in mind, we amended our FAQ on March 25 and allowed golf courses to remain operational during this time if they were able to do so with additional guidelines.”
Those guidelines include allowing just one golfer per cart, paying by credit card online in advance so there is no required interaction in the clubhouse, and only allowing one golfer at a time to use the restroom inside.
Portable toilets on the course are closed, and golfers are reminded to maintain six-foot distances from each other at all times, as well as other requirements.
Online discussions this week focused on the messaging the city was sending by loosening restrictions at this time, and the unfairness of allowing the golf course to open, while other independent businesses are being forced to remain closed.
Others supported the opening of the golf course, calling the activity a healthy option during stressful times.
Two Facebook polls were posted over the last weekend, and neither result was close, however.
The poll garnering the most participation had only around 50 votes in favor of opening the course, while 350 opposed – a 7-1 margin.
Councilmember Ryan Finn told the council he understood the opposition but strongly favored reopening the course for a number of reasons, and he said his opinion was verified by observing operations on more than day this week, when all safety measures were being followed exactly.
Police Chief and Emergency Management Director Jim Person told the council that he was asked to look into the possibility of opening the course on Wednesday of last week – the day the health department changed its FAQ.
He said that he was told that the department had consulted with the Centers for Disease Control to see what was being done nationally, and had issued the new guidance after doing so.
Davis asked Person his opinion as Emergency Management Director.
“Well,” he said, after hesitation, “I just know that with every exception you make in a situation like this, an order becomes more and more difficult to enforce.”
He described two conversations with large national retailers that were being forced to close, or adjust business practices, because of their non-essential nature.
Davidson, who had at first said that it didn’t appear she had the support to be successful with a motion, then decided to go ahead and move to close the course.
After a second, votes in favor of closing came from Davis, Peek and Tim Savage.
Clark, Finn, Chet Trutzel and Dean VanWinkle voted to leave it open. Gary Lathrop did not appear for the online meeting. Because the motion lacked the required five votes (a majority of the full council), it failed.