COVID-19: Concerns raise over travel between Cowley and Kay counties

by Jordan Green

Cowley County, Kansas has no confirmed cases of the coronavirus, and officials there want to keep their county virus-free. But that county’s neighbor to the south – Kay County, Oklahoma – may pose a threat to Cowley County’s healthy track record.

As the coronavirus spreads across Oklahoma, public health officials in Cowley County are concerned about the potential spread of the coronavirus from nearby Kay County, which has five confirmed cases.

Cowley County Public Health Officer Tom Langer said Tuesday that he is considering whether to impose travel restrictions requiring Cowley County residents to isolate themselves if they visit Kay County.

“My concerns are the back-and-forth by people between the counties that are moving from an area where I know we have spread in the county to an area that we don’t,” Langer said. “Understand, that is a concern of mine. I also am very mindful that I have people in both counties that work in the other and vice-versa.”

Langer issued an order March 12 requiring Cowley County residents to isolate themselves for 14 days if they think they’ve been exposed to the virus, but he doesn’t have the legal authority to block Kay County residents from entering Cowley County, he said.

“In reality, if I have Cowley County residents that are [going to Kay County], I could sit there and say, ‘Hey, I want you to observe this isolation. If you’ve gone down there, you’ve got to isolate yourself for 14 days,’” he said. “My residents in Cowley County have been very compliant with this, but I can’t stop the flow from the other side coming north.”

Langer believes those who commute between the counties for work are following safety precautions and practicing proper hygiene. He said he’s most concerned about school-age children and teenagers who travel.

“My other concern comes in from the fact that now, because of the fact that schools are out and whatever else, I have a very mobile population that might consider themselves immune, or they might consider themselves nothing because we are so socially mobile,” he said.

For some, travel restrictions could be harder to handle than they are for others.

Kevin Law is an information technology worker for the City of Blackwell, located in Kay County. He lives in Arkansas City in Cowley County. He commutes to Blackwell once a week, where he has to physically connect computers and run backup discs, among other tasks.

Law said he can do “about half” of his job remotely, but added that travel restrictions would still have an impact on his work.

“It wouldn’t put me out of commission, but yeah, it certainly would impact me and my ability to get the job done,” he said. “Like anything, it would impact [my job] to some extent, but what are you going to do? You’ve got to work around stuff.”

While no restrictions that block Kay County residents from leaving have been imposed, some who live there and work in Cowley County say they’re concerned about what would happen if restrictions were made.

Cody Campbell is one of five Kay County residents who works at an automotive dealership in Arkansas City. As a salesman, Campbell’s income is tied to the number of vehicles he sells. If he and his customers can’t make it to the dealership due to travel restrictions, his income will drop.

“In the car sales business, if I can’t make it to work, I can’t sell a car,” he said. “It already has a lot of people scared with the virus. … So yeah, it would definitely hurt my income bad.”

Campbell said the amount of work he can do remotely is limited, as he has to meet with customers to sign paperwork and hand over the keys to vehicles.

Officials with the Oklahoma State Health Department are encouraging residents to stay home and refrain from non-essential travel.

“Non-essential travel across the board is being highly discouraged,” Jennifer Nunn, a health educator with the department, said. “We promote the [Centers for Disease Control] recommendations. … I realize though, that you guys are here kind of at the border, and so you probably have people who work in Kansas or work here. But again, we also have the issues with non-essential businesses as well.”

For Langer, it all boils down to this: If you can, stay home.

“People, if you’ve got the time, and you don’t have to go somewhere, stay home and let us get this under control so that we don’t see a spread from Kay County into Cowley County,” Langer said. “We love you guys, but I don’t want that. When this is all done, I’m looking forward to driving back through and waving.”