Larger mass gatherings in Cowley County will be allowed in time for Fourth of July celebrations, as the number of active coronavirus continues to decline in the county.

The City-Cowley County Health Department announced the change in a statement by Public Health Officer Thomas Langer on Friday.

Starting Monday, mass gatherings defined as outdoor events such as concerts, park gatherings and open markets can increase from 250 to 750 people, as long as there is open space for the activity with social distancing required. 

Social gatherings indoors where appropriate space is available can increase from 150 to 300 people, or 25 percent of the occupancy rate of the building, as long as adequate social distancing can occur. 

On-site operations indoors can increase from 100 to 150 people, for meetings of short duration with social distancing and other health precautions utilized. This primarily relates to work-site gatherings.

Loosening the restrictions comes as people plan to watch fireworks and concerts in the park. Big events such as Winfield and Arkansas City fireworks displays allow for people to spread out and “hopefully each venue will remind people to distance themselves and not bunch up tightly like in a grandstand area,” Langer said.

He added that indoor events are still a concern, “and the numbers of people in a confined setting should be limited to less than a buildings normally stated capacity.”

The outbreak in Cowley County had led to 66 confirmed cases as of Friday since the pandemic began in March, with the vast majority of those coming in the past month. Two new cases were added on Friday.

But encouraging data is that the recover rate is has been “extremely good,” Langer said. The number of cases deemed active dropped to 21 on Friday from 29 on Thursday. There has been one virus-related death.

“Additionally, our ability to test for the virus is greater now than it has ever been before,” the statement read. “Finally, our health care system in the local area is not being overwhelmed and is able to care for any individual that needs care. Hopefully we can sustain this trend.” 

There is some troubling news, however, as COVID-19 threatens long-term care facilities. Langer did not name any facilities, but the Presbyterian Manor in Arkansas City announced this week that two employees had tested positive for the virus and that it would test all workers and residents there. The employees do not work in direct care of residents, the Manor said.

Health officials also are seeing more resident over age 60 become ill, Langer added.

In the statement, Langer reviewed the county’s response to the pandemic and how the virus began to spread here. Some incidents generate concern, such as people tested due to symptoms but not isolating and thus potentially exposing others.

And infected people ignoring quarantine orders and engaging in social activities, such as visiting casinos, going to garage sales and shopping.

“Other individuals that were exposed during social activities took the virus home to family members resulting in entire households becoming ill,” Langer said. “All this news is troubling, and if this were the only data to be examined would likely lead to continued restrictions on social activities.”

Last month, Cowley County adopted the statewide plan for reopening, allowing for local changes. The larger gatherings starting on Monday also come with conditions and guidelines as part of Phase 3, including social distancing, personal health protections and travel restrictions when returning to Cowley County. 

The county can look at phasing out of gathering limits around July 20 if things go well with the new level of activity, and if health indicators remain at current levels, Langer said.

The changes to the plan were shared with local community leadership, emergency management, local chambers of commerce and Cowley First. 

The expanded activities will be monitored closely and the health department will react if the illness erupts, Langer said.

Simple things help stop the spread of the virus, such as avoiding large crowds and areas where close social contact can occur and wearing a mask to protect yourself and others, Langer reminded. 

He also continued to urge people to practice good personal hygiene and hand washing, and stay home if ill or required to because of testing.

“Continuing these practices throughout the coming months will greatly reduce the severity of all illness in the community,” he said.

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