Under Kansas City's new COVID-19 emergency order, masks are required inside all businesses. Since the spring, thousands of complaints have been filed against local businesses related to their handling of COVID-19. (File Art/The Beacon)

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With shifting public health orders to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, local businesses in Kansas City have had to adapt to requirements like a mask order and limitations on capacity. For the businesses that don’t always get it right, residents can make a complaint to the city.

And they have — by the thousands. 

According to records requested by The Beacon, the city of Kansas City, Missouri, has received over 3,000 complaints about businesses failing to comply with the city’s COVID-19 health orders since March. Businesses range from grocery stores to golf courses to salons.

But the city’s data on complaints fails to include one detail: the name of the business. 

When The Beacon asked specifically for names of the businesses included in the dataset, a response from a public records coordinator said the Kansas City, Missouri, Health Department — one of the agencies conducting inspections of businesses during the pandemic — uses Google to match addresses with the businesses instead of requiring that data directly from the person who made the complaint. 

Michelle Pekarsky, a spokesperson for the Kansas City Health Department, said that the department has faced challenges and additional time spent in cross checking addresses and business names. She said that 311 customer service wasn’t asking for business names at the beginning of the pandemic, but has since started to.

“We sent out many messages to the public, asking them to provide as much information as possible in their complaints, but we can’t demand those filing a complaint to identify themselves or provide certain information they may not have,” Pekarsky said.

The city government recently created a form to collect the complaint information instead of just relying on compiling the data from 311 calls and emails (COVIDviolations@kcmo.org) to the city.

However, the new online form does not require that the name of a business be submitted. 

How compliance is enforced

Under Kansas City’s current COVID-19 emergency order, businesses are required to do the following: limit the number of patrons to no more than 50% of building occupancy; close at 10 p.m.; limit groups of patrons to 10 or fewer; ensure that all patrons are seated; and require that masks be worn at all times. 

Out of the 3,042 complaints filed with the city as of Dec. 1, 2,749 have been labeled as resolved, which means that there are currently over 250 open complaints. 

Complaints point out businesses that aren’t properly enforcing social distancing guidelines and employees who aren’t wearing masks — both of which are required under the city’s current emergency health order. 

The most recent order gives enforcement authority to the director of public health, the director of regulated industries and law enforcement to close, revoke licenses or fine any businesses found in violation of the new regulations.

So far, 575 businesses have received multiple complaints, with a few receiving 10 or more, including 1727 Brooklyn Ave., an address associated with Arthur Bryant’s on Google Maps. Some complaints mention Arthur Bryant’s by name, saying that employees weren’t wearing masks. Health department records say they resolved the complaint about masks by contacting the business and providing educational materials. For other complaints about social distancing in lines and not having soap in the bathroom, the health department reviewed the complaints and determined that there was no violation of the mayor’s Stay at Home Order.

“We’ve got to have them follow these orders, because the idea is to get these numbers down.”

Jim ready, director, Regulated Industries Division

Nationally, few businesses have received harsh penalties for violating COVID-19 rules. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a federal agency that oversees workplace protections, has issued 232 citations against businesses related to COVID-19, despite receiving thousands of complaints

At the end of November, the Kansas City Health Department temporarily shut down five businesses, four of which were restaurants in violation of the 10 p.m. closing time.

Pekarsky said the enforcement manager from the Environmental Health Services Division reviews complaints and assigns them to staff. She said most complaints are resolved with a phone call or letter to the business. If a business has multiple complaints or if the Health Department hasn’t been able to contact them, then department staff will visit the business to talk to management.

If a business has multiple complaints and refuses to follow the COVID-19 order, the Health Department will sometimes suspend a business’ food or occupancy permit until it submits a plan on how it will comply with the COVID-19 regulations.

The Division of Regulated Industries oversees “nuisance businesses,” which includes those that serve alcohol, like bars and restaurants. This year, because of the pandemic, the agency has also ensured that these same businesses are following the city’s COVID-19 public health orders. 

Jim Ready, director of the Regulated Industries Division, said since the start of the pandemic, the agency has been conducting inspections of businesses based on complaints filed with the city. Ready said once Mayor Quinton Lucas announced the latest emergency order in November, and with COVID-19 cases skyrocketing in the metro, the agency took a more proactive approach.

Ready said staffers now conduct inspections weekly. If a violation is found during an initial inspection, the agency will educate the business on the violations and what the employer must do to remain in compliance with city orders. Staffers then notify the business that they will return for a second inspection.

Businesses that are still in violation of the city’s COVID-19 orders after the second inspection could then face a seven- to 10-day suspension of their license. The first weekend following announcements of the latest local COVID-19 order, Ready said staffers conducted about 185 inspections and found about 20 businesses in violation. Since then, Ready said about 10 complaints have been resolved so far, and no suspensions have been issued. 

“Businesses are hurting enough. I don’t want to hurt them any more than they’re already hurt,” he said. “But we’ve got to have them follow these orders, because the idea is to get these numbers down.”

Being ‘part of the solution’

In addition to adapting to local COVID-19 emergency orders, businesses have also faced the question of what to do if an employee contracts and tests positive for the virus. Though the local order states that employers who become aware of positive cases in the workplace must report it to the health department, it has no clear guidance on if and how businesses should communicate that news with the public and their staff. 

Deborah Berkowitz, worker safety and health program director at the National Employment Law Project, said both workers and the public need to know if there are positive COVID-19 cases at a business so they can make the right decisions. 

“They need to know if they should be quarantining and not passing it on to others,” she said. “There’s a big public health responsibility to protect the public. You have to protect workers, notify workers; that’s the only way to mitigate the spread.”

According to Kansas City’s most recent COVID-19 health order, businesses that know about a patron, occupant or employee testing positive for the virus must immediately notify the director of public health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that employers inform employees of possible exposure and allow them to stay home for 10 days if they show no symptoms.

But without any clear policies or guidelines mandating that businesses disclose positive COVID-19 cases, employers are left to decide what information to share with the public. 

Some local businesses have erred on the side of transparency. Local restaurant Port Fonda posted on Instagram about a staff member testing positive for COVID-19 in June and has been closed ever since. The Mid-Continent Public Library has a dedicated COVID-19 information page that offers status updates on its multiple branches, including if a library is closed due to COVID-19.

“There’s a big public health responsibility to protect the public. You have to protect workers, notify workers; that’s the only way to mitigate the spread.”

Deborah Berkowitz, national employment law project

When staff members at Bar K — a bar, restaurant and dog park in the River Market — tested positive for COVID-19 in November, Bar K posted on its website and social media pages alerting the public. 

Leib Dodell, co-founder of Bar K, said management implemented new protocols to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 when the business reopened in May following the citywide stay-at-home orders. This includes requiring all customers and staff to wear masks, limiting capacity indoors and outdoors and implementing touchless solutions.

Being transparent with the public about COVID-19, Dodell said, stemmed from wanting to ensure that the Bar K community could make an informed decision and understand the situation. He said people on social media have responded positively to the decision.

“We were about community, we always want Bar K to be thought of as part of the solution, not part of the problem,” he said. “… We wanted to make sure that our guests always had confidence that we’re going to do the right thing for the community.”

‘Hush hush’ about COVID

But not every business is voluntarily disclosing COVID-related closures.

According to interviews with five former employees at Chop Tops, a Kansas City hair salon and barber shop with locations in Westport and Waldo, the owners did not directly notify staff members or clients about confirmed positive COVID-19 cases in the workplace and failed to immediately tell staff that the owners tested positive for the virus following a trip to Colorado in October. 

A complaint listing the address of the Chop Tops in Westport was also filed with the Health Department on Nov. 24 stating that multiple employees have tested positive for COVID-19. 

“Employees were told to lie to customers about their positive cases,” the complaint to the city reads. “They are not taking any precautions.”

The owners confirmed that they contracted COVID-19 while on vacation in Colorado in an email sent to staff Nov. 16, a copy of which was provided to The Beacon. 

“Also, unless forced by the county or city, we will not close our doors again,” the email states.

In an email to The Beacon, Chop Tops co-owner Cynthia Holopter confirmed that the owners were exposed to COVID-19 on Oct. 11 and did not return to work until the week of Oct. 26. Holopter also wrote that the salon follows all safety mandates and has been “without incident at both locations” since reopening back in May. 

Around the same time the email was sent, employees found out about another positive COVID-19 case in the workplace. Holopter said the employee told her about experiencing COVID-like symptoms. Several former employees said the owners never disclosed the positive case to the staff directly, nor did they contact any clients to notify them of possible exposure to COVID-19.

Chelsea Hecker, a former stylist at Chop Tops Westport who is immunocompromised, said the owners’ decision to not shut down and not tell staff or clientele about possible COVID-19 exposure this past month put them and their families at risk. 

“They just didn’t want to shut down,” Hecker said. “They didn’t want to tell clients what was going on. They didn’t want to tell staff. It has just been so grossly mishandled.”

Kaylee Thorpe is one of several people who resigned from Chop Tops in the past week. A stylist at Chop Tops for five years, Thorpe said the owners were very “hush hush” about the news of positive COVID-19 cases in the workplace.

“They told us to tell our clients that we had zero positive cases in there, safety was our No. 1 concern, we’ve never had any infections,” Thorpe said. “And at that point, that was a lie.”

Being a stylist, Hecker said, is often like being someone’s “beauty therapist” — that stylists were asked to keep quiet about possible exposure to COVID-19 at the salon made many feel uncomfortable. 

“To know that we were actively lying to people or lying by omission, we felt awful,” Hecker said. “Because we’re putting not only them at risk, but potentially people they have at home that we don’t even know about.”

The Nov. 24 complaint against Chop Tops was resolved Dec. 4, according to the city’s complaint data. City records say the Health Department contacted the Westport salon, spoke to the manager and clarified that the salon has to notify the department each time a client or staff member tests positive for COVID-19 and went over contact tracing requirements.

Former Chop Tops stylist MaKayla Allen, who also recently resigned from the salon over the owners’ handling of the pandemic, said she wishes the salon had shut down and that employees were notified of positive COVID-19 cases immediately.

“I think that there’s still so much about COVID that we don’t understand. And there is no accessible vaccine for COVID right now, that I feel like it’s too risky for businesses to be doing this kind of behavior,” Allen said. “And putting its employees and all of its customers at such a high risk for the expense of the dollar.”

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Celisa Calacal covers economics and civic engagement issues for The Beacon. Follow her on Twitter @celisa_mia or email her at celisa@thebeacon.media.

Brittany Callan covered health and environment at The Beacon, and was a Report for America corps member for 2020-2021. Funding for this reporting was provided in part by the Health Forward Foundation.