Linn County business owners’ lawsuit challenges county COVID-19 Order

TOPEKA — A Linn County newspaper publisher and a La Cygne restaurant owner filed a federal lawsuit challenging constitutionality of Linn County’s requirement that businesses compile information on customers that might be useful in tracing people infected with coronavirus.

Jackie Taylor, owner and publisher of Linn County News, and Linda Jo Hisel, who operates Nana Jo’s restaurant in La Cygne, are plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed Sunday against Jay Allen, a physician who serves as the county’s health director, and the Linn County Commission.

Taylor and Hisel said they went to court to reverse the public health order that took effect May 4 mandating physicians, attorneys, pharmacists, veterinarians, dentists, bankers, accountants, restaurant managers and other business operators document in-store customer names, telephone numbers, and the date and time of arrivals and departures.

The information could be sought by Linn County officials involved in “contact tracing,” which is a strategy of identifying people who may have come in contact with someone infected with COVID-19. The objective is to isolate those individuals and reduce spread of the virus.

Violations of the countywide order could result in a $500 fine. The patron, patient, client or customer information must be maintained for 30 days.

“We have a great deal of trust in our county officials, but this just goes too far,” Taylor said. “COVID is serious, but we can’t let our most basic rights be eroded.”

On Sunday, the Kansas Department of Heath and Environment reported five confirmed cases of coronavirus in Linn County. County officials say there have been five confirmed and one assumed positive for the virus.

In Kansas, KDHE says, 6,984 cases of COVID-19 have been discovered through testing. Over the weekend, nearly 500 positive cases were added to the list. The virus has been a contributing factor in the death of 157 Kansas residents. However, independent sources tracking the virus put Kansas fatalities at 164 and 174.

‘Warrantless searches’

Sam MacRoberts, an attorney with the Kansas Justice Institute, alleged violation of the Fourth and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution in the lawsuit filed on behalf of Taylor and Hisel in federal court.

He said constitutional rights shouldn’t be sacrificed during a pandemic.

“Government officials cannot be permitted to conduct warrantless searches,” MacRoberts said. “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.”

Hisel said customers at her restaurant were “practically family” and government shouldn’t expect her to keep track of those people.

In March, Hisel posted to Facebook a prayer urging Jesus to eradicate COVID-19.

“We will not tolerate the enemy inciting fear in us,” she said. “We condemn and rebuke the enemy right now and we bind him from telling lies that cause us not to trust you.”

Gov. Laura Kelly on May 4 lifted a statewide stay-at-home order and initiated a phased process of reopening the Kansas economy. At that juncture, county officials could impose more stringent restrictions, but not less restrictive, in response to the threat of COVID-19.

Politics of barbering

On Sunday, the threat of arrest for a McPherson barber shop proprietor was apparently resolved after a pair of U.S. Senate candidates denounced reaction of local authorities to barber Luke Ace Aichele’s decision to run his business during the pandemic.

Barbers and hair stylists aren’t allowed to open under the first phase of the governor’s statewide directive.

Aichele, of Luke’s Barber Shop, posted to Facebook that the threat of arrest had been rescinded. He created a public controversy Friday by posting that he had received an an arrest warrant.

Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle and U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall, who are competing for the Republican Party’s nomination for U.S. Senate, said on Twitter that Aichele should be allowed to operate his shop if following social distancing recommendations.

“It’s immoral to prevent those who want to work safely, with social distancing, from doing so,” Wagle said.