Call ‘em back.
Big wedding parties are now back on at the county-owned Schenk and Unrein buildings.
The events were canceled a week ago when the county embarked on a phased-in shutdown of the popular multi-purpose buildings to stop the spread of COVID-19.
But Ellis County Commission Chair Butch Schlyer and Commissioner Dean Haselhorst made the decision to reinstate the parties after hearing from tearful brides.
One of those was Staci DeWild, who spoke Monday evening at the commission’s regular meeting.
"I wish that there was a little more consideration about restrictions before just shutting it down," said a tearful DeWild, whose wedding is in November.
Starting this past Monday, Ellis County had started a phased-in shutdown of the heavily booked buildings, calling and letting brides know they were initially limiting wedding parties and other events to not more than 50 people.
Other brides got the call that starting Sept. 1, the plan canceled all indoor mass gatherings at the two buildings.
"I have made a lot of phone calls, and have very upset people," said Melinda Fross, manager at the Ellis County Fair Grounds. Many had already made deposits, Fross said.
"They have a lot of money involved," she told the commissioners, noting the buildings are booked through the end of the year and beyond, mostly with weddings.
"Some are rescheduling," she said, "some are going elsewhere because there are other venues still open, and that’s aggravating to them as well."
Haselhorst said he’d received numerous calls from upset brides over the course of the week.
"Three of the weddings that are in the month of August impact me a lot, because I know all three of them very well," Haselhorst said. "One of them was very, very understanding. The other two, God bless ‘em, the little bride she cried her eyes out as she talked to me for about 20 minutes. ... She’s put her whole life into planning this day and it could be taken away in a second."
Most weddings in Ellis County are big affairs, he noted, including his, which was two days with 600 guests.
"There’s very few weddings, no matter what your last name is, in Ellis County you may have 300 people there," Haselhorst said, with a lot of people coming from out of town.
The shutdown began last week at the request of Ellis County Health Services director Jason Kennedy, citing a COVID-19 cluster in July from a wedding party at the Schenk Unrein buildings.
Two of the largest event spaces in Ellis County, the Schenk building is 6,600-square-foot, and the Unrein Family Building is 7,500-square-foot.
Connected by Deutschefest Hall, which seats 80 people, the Unrein and Schenk can be rented as one large unit. Like that, it can hold 1,200 seats and tables.
"I’ve always went with Jason on everything he’s decided; he’s a super-smart young man, and I believe everything he says, and he’s looking out for the best interests of the county," Haselhorst said. "Do I want to close the Ellis County Fair Grounds? I really don’t."
Schlyer said his first inclination on hearing Kennedy’s plan was to go with it. But later he learned how many people and events would be affected.
"I’m inclined to leave it open at the present time," Schlyer said. "It’s not to say we won’t ever have to close it. Don’t know when or if that will happen."
Shutdown still possible
Haselhorst cautioned a shutdown could come at any time, however.
"If we do have a big spike, we’re done, we’re closed," Haselhorst said. "If we see a big spike all of a sudden, unfortunately, we may have to do it on a week’s notice, say ‘sorry we’re closed.’"
For the past five months, Kennedy told the commissioners, the county’s message has been to social distance and avoid mass gatherings. During that time there have been 60 cases in Ellis County, with 16 of them, or 26.6%, associated with mass gatherings, he said.
"I understand the pain and heartache that this causes people," Kennedy said of his phased-in closing plan, but added, "I don’t have a change to my plan that I’m willing to put forward. The plan is fine."
COVID-19 cases in Ellis County began trending upward July 8, Kennedy said, after the 4th of July mass gatherings.
That continued until July 18, 14 days after the 4th of July. On July 27, the city of Hays announced its mask mandate, and a downward trend began, Kennedy said.
"On 4th of July, in one mass gathering event held in one of our buildings, we had nine primary positives. From those positives, we had seven secondary positives, and 65 people were quarantined," Kennedy said. "Did they all contract it at that event? I don’t know that answer, no one does. It seems plausible."
Big events, high-risk
Kennedy provided the commission with a 9-page checklist from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help people prepare for a mass gathering.
He pointed out that the CDC describes the highest risk event is one that is a large, in-person indoor gathering where it’s hard for people to social distance, and people come in from outside the area.
"Most of the events that I’ve attended out there, fall into the highest risk category," Kennedy said.
"I do not want to get into the game of trying to enforce any type of restrictions out there," he said. "My plan from the start was to close the building until after flu season."
Other than the people in August and September, the county is providing appropriate notice, he said.
"We gotta pull the plug somewhere," Kennedy said. "There’s no way to gather in groups safely and mitigate your risk to zero."
"You want to close it by Sept. 1?" asked Schlyer.
"That is my goal," Kennedy answered.
Close all the venues
Justin Scheck, vice president of the Ellis County Fair Board, said earlier in the discussion that the commission should close all the venues in town, not just the county ones.
"I got no concerns with wanting to shut all the county buildings down, to cancel all the weddings," Scheck told the commissioners. "My only concern is if we’re going to shut county buildings down, I feel we need to shut all the venues down. We’re serving no purpose of saving cases of coronavirus if we’re just moving them to a different venue. We all know that there is a venue going to be opening up in town and they’ve been taking some of these people that have been canceling."
Schlyer asked County Commissioner Dustin Roths, who recused himself from the discussion, if he’s doing anything at his event venue on Main Street in downtown Hays to mitigate risk.
Roths said his building, which isn’t open yet, is quite a bit smaller than the county buildings. While the venue will likely have a 300 maximum capacity rating, he will likely limit the number to fewer than that, he said.
"The idea of it being closed means extreme financial hardship for me, my family, my investors," he said. "So from that perspective I know it’s a different decision for a county that has a $22 million budget. I can assure you, the Roths household does not have a $22 million budget."
Roths said his venue is already booked nearly solid, and he’s been able to take very few of the cancellations from the county.
Set an example
Schlyer said he had no desire to close private venues.
"I’m a really, really, really long ways from doing that," he said. "They’re gonna have to grab me kicking and screaming before I’ll close up private businesses."
Noting that Kennedy’s concern is for the county to set an example, Schlyer said the plan the last couple weeks of August, limits gatherings to no more than 50 people.
"To be honest, there is zero justification for the 50 number," Kennedy said. "It’s enough that you can have your close immediate family gather, but it’s not so many that we’re getting back into what’s the point of doing this at all."
Kennedy said he developed the phased plan because he heard from so many people who were upset.
"I really wanted to close it August 1, but there’s a couple-hundred-person wedding the next weekend," he said. "I agree, that’s not fair. That was harsh to do."
Schlyer said he believes the county should strongly encourage smaller numbers, but not require it, which gets into enforcement problems.
"That opens up a whole ‘nother can of worms," Schlyer said. "I do not want to send law enforcement out to any venue and have them confronted by people, to threaten to close down or kick people out of the venue."
Haselhorst noted that Thirsty’s Brew Pub & Grill has closed its event venue. The banquet room at Gella’s Diner is now limited to parties of 20, and the Rose Garden Banquet Hall remains open.
Education, not closing
Haselhorst said he prefers education over closing buildings and said couples renting the county buildings should instead be asked to read the CDC guidelines for mass gatherings, encouraged to limit the size of their party, ask guests to wear masks, and not invite people from virus hotspots.
"I encourage all you future brides, or grooms, be smart," Haselhorst said. "Watch who you invite, encourage a smaller wedding."
The commissioners asked County Counselor Bill Jeter to write up a new contract so guests who attend sign a waiver they won’t make a claim back to the county.
Jeter said that itself presents problems.
"As a practical matter, how are you going to regulate guests signing a waiver?" Jeter asked. "What if they refuse? Are you going to deny admittance? Who’s going to enforce that?"
Despite the decision Monday evening, the issue is most likely still not settled, according to Haselhorst.
With Fort Hays State University starting back up in mid-August, he said it’s highly likely the county will see another spike in its cases by Sept. 15 or 20.
"At that time, we’re probably going to have to revisit it guys, and look at this," Haselhorst said.
"If we get one wedding that 40 cases come out of," he said. "Well, then lock the gate."
Ready for bashing
The commissioners indicated they expect a replay of backlash like they saw the past month over their decision not to require masks in the county.
"No matter what we decide on this issue, I fully understand all of you that have social media is going to hammer the living daylights out of Butch and myself," Haselhorst said.
"I can have my friends send me little text messages saying ‘you just got your you-know-what handed to you on Facebook because of the last decision you made.’ You know what, if that’s all you have to do, go home get on your Facebook and just hammer the hell out of me," Haselhorst said, "because I really don’t care. I have better things to do with my life than to look at Facebook."
"I’m used to it," Schlyer said.
He told Fross, "Melinda, you’ve got some more calls to make."