Johnson County’s COVID-19 restrictions are now significantly looser than the statewide orders after the state granted variances on Monday. 

Under the variances, Johnson County is exempt from the statewide mask mandate that requires residents to wear masks when in line to enter or are inside any business or government building open to the public, when visiting health care facilities and when waiting for or riding in public transportation or ride-sharing vehicles. School buildings and school events, however, remain under a mask mandate and the Johnson County Healthcare Center is keeping its masking and visitation rules in place.

Johnson County Commission Chairman Bill Novotny said a group that included the county commissioners, the county sheriff and the county attorney decided to seek the variance request after looking at the county’s COVID-19 data. 

“We have made tremendous strides in getting people vaccinated,” he said. “It did not make sense to move forward under those restrictions.” 

In addition to repealing the mask mandate, the variances allow restaurants and bars in the county to operate without restriction. Precautions such as social distancing, PPE for staff and disinfection of surfaces are still encouraged. Gyms and movie theaters are also allowed to operate without restriction, as are nail and hair salons, barber shops and massage therapy services. 

The variances also lessen restrictions on public gatherings by removing the requirement for social distancing and PPE usage. Restrictions on the number of participants permitted at group events are also increased. Indoor gatherings of more than 500 people or outdoor gatherings of more than 1,000 people must get approval from the county health officer.

County health officer Dr. Mark Schueler said he believes now is an appropriate time for the variance because the county has the state’s lowest prevalence of active cases. On Tuesday, the Department of Health reported there were zero active cases of the coronavirus in Johnson County

Schueler said he wasn’t aware that the request was being worked on before he was handed the papers to sign, but that it’s a “reasonable time” for it to occur. 

“There’s the possibility that we’ll have an increase in cases and that’s my main concern, but I’m feeling confident that a majority of our high-risk individuals have been immunized and are protected,” he said. 

With the statewide health orders expiring on Feb. 28, Schueler said, new orders will have to be implemented and the county variance will be updated at that time. He said he does not expect anything in the variance to change when that occurs. 

Schueler also said he believes that schools are excluded from the variance so that precautions can be removed in levels and not all at once.

“Let’s assume that we’re stepping down in stages rather than all at once abandoning every precaution we’ve been practicing,” he said. “I don’t expect the school restrictions to persist for a long time.” 

Novotny said that he hopes the variance can help restart events and bring about a return to normal activity in the county. 

“Our hope is that we have turned the corner and can allow people to plan for events that are going to happen in Johnson County this spring and summer and allow people to return to some level of normalcy,” he said. 

Editor's note: This story has been updated from its original form to include additional information.

Ryan Hanrahan joined the Bulletin in October 2020 and covers county government, schools and health care. If you have ideas or feedback, reach out at ryan@buffalobulletin.com.

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