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Wichita bar owners seek return to pre-pandemic rules

December 8, 2020 GMT

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Bar owners in Kansas’ largest city are challenging rules designed to slow the spread of COVID-19, hoping to use the courts to overturn a mask mandate, limits on public gatherings and an 11 p.m. closing time for bars and restaurants.

If the bar owners and others suing officials in Wichita and its home of Sedgwick County are successful, they would take the county back to business as it was before the coronavirus pandemic reached Kansas in early March, The Wichita Eagle reports.

The lawsuit is partially crowd-funded by “Unmask the Truths,” a Facebook and web-based group of mask opponents. It was first filed in state district court in late November, but attorneys for both sides had it moved to federal court this month because the lawsuit alleges that pandemic rules violate the business owners’ rights to free speech and due legal process under the U.S. Constitution.

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“A face mask has become a symbol of an attempt by the government to gain control of its citizenry,” the lawsuit claims. “Forcing them to wear face masks is forcing them to convey a message with which they disagree.”

The lawsuit was filed by 10 businesses, their owners and two other Sedgwick County residents who allege that their rights as citizens are violated.

Sedgwick County has the most reported confirmed and probable coronavirus cases of any of the state’s 105 counties, according the state Department of Health and Environment. It had nearly 31,000 cases for the pandemic as of Monday, or 60 for every 1,000 residents, with 172 reported COVID-19 deaths. It had more than 5,700 new cases during the two weeks ending Monday.

Wichita Mayor Brandon Whipple said the business owners are worried about their families and employees, “so I get it.”

“But the other thing too is we’ve got to be thinking mid- and long-term where stopping and slowing down the spread of COVID is vital to getting our economy back to normal again,” he said.

Kansas also has reported about 60 confirmed and probable coronavirus cases for every 1,000 residents since the pandemic began, for a total of more than 174,000 cases. It also has reported more than 5,500 hospitalizations and 1,856 deaths as of Monday.