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City Beat: Council adopts thresholds to phase out COVID-19 rules

Health Department officials say the next level of indicators may be met by mid-April

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Springfield City Council on March 22 unanimously approved a resolution setting three key indicators as the thresholds of the COVID-19 Road to Recovery plan.

Established by the Springfield-Greene County Health Department, the indicators will be used to determine when public health and safety regulations can be stepped down. They are Greene County’s daily new case count, hospitalizations due to COVID-19 and the percentage of the eligible population that has been fully vaccinated.

Katie Towns, acting Health Department director, said the indicators will be evaluated over a 28-day period, or two incubation cycles of the virus.

The city currently is operating under Phase 3C of the Road to Recovery Plan, which maintains restrictions, such as masking, and limits occupancy in public areas to 50% to allow for physical distancing.

The next threshold requires a 25% vaccination rate, under 40 new cases per day and less than 50 hospital patients in COVID-19 isolation per day.

In that phase, most occupancy restrictions would be removed, and physical distancing would be recommended, but masking would still be required. Mass gatherings under 500 would be allowed with masking and distancing recommended, while gatherings of over 500 would be allowed at 50% capacity.

Towns said the city could move forward to the next phase if two of the three conditions are met, as long as the third threshold shows significant progress, as determined by the Health Department.

On March 22, Towns said Health Department officials anticipated meeting the 28-day period of low cases per day and hospitalization numbers by March 24. As of March 24, the new daily case number was 20, and 37 patients were hospitalized, according to Health Department data.

Just over 12% of the eligible population has been fully vaccinated, and Towns anticipates meeting the 25% threshold in mid-April.

“We’re going to be making good progress, and I think we need to watch these next two weeks very closely,” Towns said.

To fully remove the ordinance, including mandatory masking, new cases per day and hospitalizations must both be under 20 and at least 50% of the eligible population must be fully vaccinated.

Councilmember Phyllis Ferguson recused herself in the vote, citing the potential for financial gain. Ferguson, the chief operating officer of Mexican Villa, has abstained from voting on the masking mandate, as well, due to her role in the restaurant industry that must enforce COVID-19 regulations.

Grant Avenue plan
Council also unanimously adopted the Grant Avenue Parkway Corridor Plan as part of the city’s Comprehensive Plan.

Randall Whitman, principal city planner, said the corridor plan area covers 1.25 miles of Grant Avenue between College and Catalpa streets, including areas within 500 feet east and west of the Grant Avenue centerline.

The entire Grant Avenue Parkway project runs the 3-mile stretch from College to Sunshine Street, with the goal of connecting downtown to the Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium.

“This area represents the best opportunity to affect positive neighborhood revitalization and leverage the $21 million BUILD grant to incentivize new development and redevelopment,” Whitman told council.

In November 2019, Sen. Roy Blunt’s office announced Springfield as the recipient of $21 million in grant funds through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development Transportation Discretionary Grants Program to design and build the Grant Avenue Parkway.

City staff and the Forward SGF Comprehensive Plan consultant, Houseal Lavigne Associates, completed the plan after six months of public input, engaging more than 2,000 individuals.

Whitman said during public engagement processes the city heard concerns about land use and disruption and displacement during improvements.

The adopted plan includes opportunities for improvement of the corridor’s framework, roadway, future development and placemaking. It also makes specific recommendations for rezoning of properties, Whitman said.

“This gives us an opportunity to renew part of our city that really needs it,” said Councilmember Andrew Lear. “It’ll evolve, it’ll take time, but this isn’t just a road – this is all that touches it on either side, so it is a real transformational, urban prospect.”

Whitman said there are two other efforts that will be brought before council now that the plan has been adopted: a parkway overlay zoning district to establish the development code for the corridor and the rezoning of parcels within approximately 72 acres into the new zoning district.

City officials noted the plan, which can be accessed at GrantAvenueParkway.com, is a guide for decision making around the neighborhoods and public spaces along the avenue and is not regulatory.

Whitman said the actions are set to come before council in June.

The full Grant Avenue Parkway plan’s total funding is $26.2 million, including the $21 million federal grant and $5.2 million in matching city funds. Of that, $13.3 million is marked for construction of a greenway trail system along the stretch of Grant Avenue; $5 million for utility work; $4.7 million for right-of-way acquisitions; and $3.2 million for engineering and administrative costs, according to past reporting.

Second reading bills
With unanimous votes, council approved two bills proposed by City Utilities of Springfield in an effort to reduce the financial burden of increased natural gas costs in February. The first bill adjusts the unauthorized use charge applied to natural gas usage by curtailable customers – 25 high-volume customers who agree to minimize use during a curtailment.

Amy Derdall, vice president and chief financial officer for CU, said the one-time adjustment to unauthorized use penalties would lower the fee total from $6 million to around $1 million. The second bill allows residential and smaller commercial customers to spread the additional costs of natural gas over two years rather than immediately. By spreading out the cost, bills will increase by about 20% on average instead of by 100%, Derdall said.

Council unanimously rezoned 1.4 acres at 1720 W. Grand St. to general retail from low-density, multifamily residential. The lot, just south of the former Price Cutter store on the site, is currently vacant and there are no plans for development at this time, according to city documents.

The property was recently platted into the Kansas at Grand subdivision along with the former Price Cutter plot to the north and an undeveloped plot to the west, fronting Kansas Expressway. The rezoned property is owned by Jordan Valley Community Health Center. The building was purchased by Jordan Valley in December and is temporarily being used as a COVID-19 vaccination clinic with plans to develop a full clinic on site.

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