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Lawrence’s largest retailers ready to get rid of masks, once county leaders give the OK; update on LMH finances



LAWRENCE, Kan. – Corporate America is ready if Lawrence is. While local residents may have a divided mind over whether Douglas County should end its mask mandate, the community’s largest corporate retailers seemingly don’t have any such hesitancy.

Many of the largest retailers in the community have sent out press releases in recent days saying customers and employees who have been vaccinated don’t have to wear masks inside their stores. But there is almost always fine print with those announcements that says mask requirements will continue in those places where local ordinances are in place.

That means Lawrence and Douglas County. At least for now. Douglas County commissioners are scheduled to meet tonight and consider a recommendation from local health officials that dovetails with the latest CDC guidance that vaccinated folks don’t need to wear masks in most situations.

The latest Lawrence retailer to send out the news was the Kroger Company, which is the parent of Dillons, the largest grocery store chain in town. Beginning Thursday, the company will no longer require masks for employees and customers who are vaccinated.

The caveat is that its stores will continue to adhere to any state or local mask mandate. In its press release, the company singled out two communities within its multistate territory of Dillons, Baker’s and Gerbes locations that still have mask mandates in place: Lawrence and Omaha, Neb.

Kroger made it sound like many employees were in favor of loosening the masks rules, once the CDC recommended the change.

“We have received feedback from and heard the valued opinions of thousands of associates regarding the CDC’s announcement,” the company said in its release. “Based on the CDC’s science-based guidance and the input of our associates, we are updating our mask policy in a way that balances our values of safety and respect.”

Hy-Vee, another large grocery chain that operates in Lawrence, sent out a release earlier in the week adopting a mask-free policy for employees and customers who are vaccinated. It, however, also includes language that says it will follow local ordinances on the matter, meaning it hasn’t yet been implemented in Lawrence.

The release from Hy-Vee also provides some information on the company’s expectation for mask wearing by people who aren’t vaccinated. The release says masks will be “required” for employees who are not yet fully vaccinated and are “strongly recommended” for Hy-Vee customers who aren’t vaccinated. How companies will know whether customers are vaccinated largely has been described as an honor system so far. There has been greater debate on the employee front, such as whether employers can require employees to show proof that they have been vaccinated.

Walmart was one of the first national retailers to eliminate the masks-for-all requirement, except in those places with local ordinances. It also seems to have a unique plan for partially getting around the logistics of finding out whether their employees have been vaccinated. The company is providing a $75 bonus to any Walmart employee who gets vaccinated or already has been vaccinated. However, the employee must show proof of vaccination to get the bonus. It will be interesting to see if other companies take that path.

I’m not going to go over every other major retailer that has sent out announcements about masks recently. Instead, just look for the signs at the front of stores. Know that even after the local mandate is lifted, retailers still will have the option of requiring masks. The governor and Lawrence leaders seem nowhere near to passing regulations that would remove a business’ ability to decide for itself that masks should still be required in their establishments.

Indeed, it will be interesting to watch if there are some local establishments that keep a mask rule intact, even once the local ordinance is eliminated.

I did check in with LMH Health on Wednesday about its plans. A spokeswoman there said it wanted to wait until county commissioners heard the issue. However, she said the hospital likely would have a different set of rules in place than many of the retailers and other businesses. She said the hospital also likely would make some decisions soon on whether to loosen its policy on the number of visitors who can come to the hospital to see patients.

Since I mentioned LMH, I’ll briefly report that the hospital had its monthly board meeting on Wednesday. Probably the most significant happening at the meeting, though, was a discussion that happened behind closed doors.

The hospital board did hold an executive session with its corporate attorney to discuss a possible strategic clinical relationship with another hospital company in the region. The board did not take any action coming out of executive session, and did not provide any updates on its discussions.

I’ve reported a few times that LMH is exploring its opportunities to partner with another health care company. I don’t know when LMH leaders may come forward with a plan, but Wednesday’s meeting is a good indication that the talks remain serious.

As we’ve reported, hospital leaders have said they have no interest in selling the nonprofit hospital to another group, nor giving up any control of LMH. In other words, the partnership more likely would be about how LMH could partner with another company to provide certain services or share certain costs.

The hospital certainly has been talking about ways to deliver more services both in heart care and oncology, i.e., cancer care.

Board members on Wednesday did get a couple of reports that show the hospital’s finances are on an upswing as it enters these conversations about partnerships. One report showed LMH posted a $1.7 million operating profit in April. That’s a better performance than most months in 2021. The strong April pushed LMH’s operating numbers into positive territory for the year. Through April, LMH has posted an approximately $800,000 operating profit. When nonoperating revenue is added to the mix — government grants and market returns on LMH’s investments, for instance — LMH’s total profit grows to about $6.4 million for the year. LMH is a nonprofit, so any profits the business makes are reinvested back into the enterprise.

Board members also received the financial audit for 2020, which gave LMH a clean bill of health. It confirmed previous operating results that showed LMH posted an operating loss of $6.9 million in 2020, due largely to COVID impacts. But all of those losses were offset by government grants and other forms of nonoperating income. In total, LMH ended 2020 revenues exceeding expenses by $4.05 million. That was a marked improvement from 2019, when LMH posted a total loss of $8.71 million.