In Support of O’Dowd’s — Kansas City’s Lack of an Empiric Pandemic Strategy

The Kansas City Mayor claims they have followed the data — so where is it?

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

On November 16th, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas announced the “Safer at Home KC” order — asking Kansas City citizens to stay home whenever possible. Additionally, the order set an arbitrary 10 PM curfew for businesses (mainly bars) that typically operate past that time. After he appealed to surrounding counties to follow suit, they eventually caved and put the same policies in place with one exception (Johnson County, which set a midnight curfew).

One would expect that forcing businesses to deviate from their typical operating hours would be supplemented by some sort of evidence that supported his claim that KC bars and restaurants were major drivers of the spread of COVID-19 — but he didn’t. No contact tracing data was shared, which has been the case since SARS-CoV-2 first arrived in Kansas City in March — Mayor Lucas and the Kansas City Public Health Department, led by Rex Archer, have not shared a single piece of contact tracing data regarding restaurants and bars.

In mid-January, the KC mayor announced an update to his COVID-19 measures, which included moving the business curfew to midnight vs. the 10 PM curfew from two months earlier — once again, it appeared to be arbitrary. When asked about the previous curfew, the mayor claimed that it had “saved lives”.

On January 28th, O’Dowd’s Gastropub, located in the Kansas City Country Club Plaza, filed a lawsuit against Mayor Lucas, claiming the measures being enforced exceeded Lucas’s authority as mayor. His office fired back, claiming once again that his primary objective from these measures was to “save lives”.

But did they?

The bar and restaurant curfew went into effect on Friday, November 20th. Once a policy related to COVID-19 is changed, generally one would need to look at COVID metrics about two weeks after the policy went into effect (or was removed) to be able to determine if the measures made a difference. Going off of this assumption, if the curfews and additional restrictions make a difference, we’d expect case growth to have slowed down/peaked on December 4th.

Cases in Kansas City peaked and started declining 24 days prior, on November 10th — 6 days before the additional restrictions had even been announced, and 10 days before they went into effect.

The timeline of these orders juxtaposed with the COVID-19 case curve in Kansas City does not support the narrative built by Lucas and others that the curfews had any major impact. Additionally, SafeGraphs mobility data provided by CMU’s excellent COVID dashboard shows that bar visits, while experiencing a small dip after the curfew, did not change in any meaningful way after the curfew went into effect. Since then, visits have gradually increased since hitting that low in late November/early December — all while cases continue to trend down. This is even more apparent when breaking out the average case numbers and bar visits on a month-by-month basis. Surely the NFL playoffs and a Chiefs Super Bowl run were a large factor in the increased traffic to bars in the month of January.

Of course, an argument could be made that a curfew or mask mandate was not the single factor to cause daily cases to plunge. One could claim that it was a combination of these factors, a result of the community “working together to flatten the curve”. A valid argument, if you only looked at Kansas City in a vacuum.

But when you look at the numbers from Missouri as a whole, or the entire Midwest, you quickly see that Kansas City followed the same general trajectory as Missouri, which in turn followed the trajectory of every other Midwest state that surrounds it — keep in mind, these are states with wildly different COVID-19 restrictions, but their daily cases all managed to peak within one week of each other.

Clearly, human interventions or behaviors did not cause the synchronized rise and fall of COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the Midwest. There are external factors beyond human control that must be contributing to it — yet those continuing to promulgate these policies refuse to acknowledge it. They are incentivized to do so — would Lucas truly ever admit the trajectory of the curve is largely out of our control, and further weaken his legal argument for these drastic measures? Why would he and the Kansas City Public Health Department not share contact tracing data to support their claims about restaurants and bars unless it didn’t support their narrative?

In neighboring Kansas, which conveniently provides statewide contact tracing data on its COVID-19 dashboard, there are 301 active case clusters with 13,300 active cases — zero of which can currently be traced to restaurants and bars. With no data currently provided for Kansas City, is it really that much of a stretch to believe the numbers here are probably similar?

Yet the prevailing narrative from local politicians and public health officials is that restaurants and bars must be shut down in order to control the spread of SARS-CoV-2 — a narrative based on speculation and assumptions, and not hard data. People are packed into these buildings, don’t wear masks most of the time, so surely these businesses must be a hotspot, right?

This narrative is built on the idea that anyone, even if asymptomatic, could spread the virus to others without even knowing they have it. So-called public health experts rely on deeply flawed modeling studies to attempt to prove this point — yet a JAMA meta-analysis with nearly 78,000 participants spanning 54 studies found asymptomatic individuals had a 0.7% attack rate to other individuals that live within the same home. Symptomatic individuals had an attack rate nearly 26 times higher at 18%. If asymptomatic carriers are not consistently spreading it to others within the same household, where there are no masks, distancing guidelines, etc., wouldn’t that explain why healthy people typically aren’t spreading it to one another in bars and restaurants?

This is what happens when you build the defense of your policies on the unstable ground of assumptions and speculation. These are not empiric policies — and the longer the Mayor and KC Public Health officials go without providing contact tracing data for Kansas City bars and restaurants, the weaker their ground becomes.

If you’re going to effectively issue a death sentence to hundreds of businesses in Kansas City, forcing unemployment upon tens of thousands of people, you can’t just provide anecdotes, assumptions and speculation. You need actual hard evidence.

I’m no legal expert, so I’m not sure how strong O’Dowd’s law-based argument is against forced closings, reduced hours etc.

But they sure as hell have a strong evidence-based one.

Millions of Americans are experiencing food insecurity due to COVID-19 restrictions. In lieu of putting this article behind a paywall, I’ve made it free and ask you to please consider donating to Harvesters Community Food Network or your local food bank.

Academic background in biomedical engineering and computer science. Mainly write about science and technology. Currently work as a software architect.