Commission votes to reopen fairground buildings amid virus concerns

BY JUSTIN SABATA

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has grinded many institutions in America to a halt, and in some cases, forced a difficult time for couples planning to marry. The Ellis County commissioners hosted a public discussion at Monday’s meeting about the limits recently placed on two Ellis County Fairgrounds buildings.

It was announced late last month that, as of Sept. 1, there would be no indoor mass gatherings at either the Unrein or Schenk buildings. As reported by the Hays Daily News, events at those buildings have been responsible for some COVID-19 outbreaks in the county.

After hearing concerns from the public, a health official and weighing both options, both Commissioner Butch Schlyer and Commissioner Dean Haselhorst decided to reopen the buildings. Commissioner Dustin Roths recused himself from the vote. 

Schlyer and Haselhorst encouraged wedding planners to take the precautions they deem necessary.

“I think those people who are having weddings, gatherings, you need to watch where the hotspots are in the country; you really need to watch who you invite to come to these gatherings,” Schlyer said. “It wouldn’t make a lot of sense to invite people out of Florida and Texas right now.”

Schlyer also advised to limit the amount of elderly people at the gatherings. Haselhorst recommended cases be monitored heavily and warned that closures might still happen if there is a new spike in cases. This could lead to the buildings being closed immediately.

“That could be at any venue in Ellis County, as far as that goes,” Haselhorst said. “If we see a big spike out of any of them, we’re done.” 

As reported by Ellis County Health Director Jason Kennedy, there were five new cases of COVID-19 in Ellis County as of Monday, raising the active case total to 20. At the time of the report, there was one active hospitalization. 

The health director presented the trends of percent of positives in the county over the pandemic’s timeline. Percent of positives give a seven-day average of new cases and more accurately displays the current rate of infection in the area. The rate increased in the county during the Fourth of July, peaked on July 18, but has begun to decrease the past two weeks.

“We actually have thankfully seen reductions from July 23,” Kennedy said. “We’ve seen a significant reduction in our percent of positive or amount of community spread.”

Kennedy reported nine primary cases and seven secondary cases from an event during the Fourth of July at one of the county facilities. As a result, 65 people were quarantined. 

“Did they all contract it at that event? I don’t know that answer, no one does,” Kennedy said. “I really don’t. It seems plausible; they weren’t sick prior to. Within 14 days after that, they had all tested positive for it.” 

Kennedy also reported 26.6% of positive cases in the county were associated with a mass gathering. According to Kennedy, his initial plan was to close the county buildings Aug. 1.

“And not necessarily because we’re at a point where our cases are out of control,” Kennedy said. “I wanted to close our buildings because it just might keep us from having to close private buildings.”

Kennedy continued to describe why that would be a much different situation.

“We have a whole different set of metrics that we use if we have to get into restrictions on private individuals,” he said. “Because that impacts their bottom line, their kids eating, that affects everything in their life if we have to get to there.”

The health director stated that, although he empathizes with those affected by the closures, he would not be making any modifications to his plan.

“I don’t have a change to my plan that I’m willing to put forth,” Kennedy said. “The plan is fine.”

The Public

Before the commissioners discussed the issue, they opened the floor to anyone from the public with a concern on the county building closures. Melinda Fross, manager of the Ellis County Fairgrounds, was concerned for those who are now at risk of having to cancel events.

“I’ve made a lot of phone calls; we have very upset people,” Fross said. “They feel that it’s not fair. They’ve put all of their deposits down for everything else and they have a lot of money involved.”

Kennedy recommended not opening the buildings until the end of flu season (usually the end of February). However, as described by Fross, other venues remain open despite the county buildings closing. This leads to the concern of residents moving or rescheduling their events.

“I know that Jason (Kennedy) said, you know, once the numbers stay down,” Fross said. “But at the same token, they’re wondering, you know, how long do they have to wait to try to reschedule? Some are rescheduling, some are going elsewhere because there are other venues still open.”

Justin Scheck, vice president of the Ellis County Fair Board, was also concerned with other venues remaining open and recommended that if the fairground building are to be closed, then so should other venues. 

“My only concern is if we’re going to shut county buildings down, I feel we need to shut all of the venues down,” he said. “We’re serving no purpose of saving cases of coronavirus if we’re going to be moving them just to a different venue.” 

Staci DeWild, an Ellis County resident with an event scheduled in November, hoped that consideration would be given to those in a similar situation.

“I wish that there was a little more consideration about restrictions before just shutting it down,” DeWild said. “A lot of us have planned a lot during all of this, and to just have it up and taken away from us without consideration of cutting them (attendance) down or wearing facemasks or anything is a little disheartening.”

The Ellis County Commission is scheduled to meet again this Monday in the Commission Room at the Ellis County Administrative Center. Their meetings can also be viewed on their Facebook and YouTube pages.

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