Albemarle County has made a number of changes to how the local government will operate during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Deputy County Executive Doug Walker told the Board of Supervisors this past week that the county’s goals during the pandemic are to maintain essential services for the public, reduce virus transmission among staff and to protect high-risk people.
“We’ve never done a pandemic before, and so even though we have structure and systems and experiences, we have to adapt them as we are adapting to the unique nature of what this means and how we’re trying to meet these goals,” Walker said.
The county, along with many other localities in Virginia, has changed how visitors to county offices are allowed inside.
At the McIntire Road County Office Building, the main side visitors’ entrance and the Community Development north wing entrance are still open, but the rear visitors’ entrance will be closed.
Visitors only are permitted on the first floor of the building, and the front desk will call the appropriate department to have county staff meet the visitor and conduct business in the lobby, where tables and chairs are set up.
The county is encouraging that finance payments be made via online, over the phone, self-service kiosk or payment dropoff methods, but window payments still will be accepted.
“We’re encouraging people to call before they come in and also check online to see what they can do online,” county spokeswoman Emily Kilroy said. “People are so used to coming in, they may not realize that some of the things that they are looking to do you can do online.”
At the County Office Building on Fifth Street Extended, Police Department and Social Services visitors are restricted to the lobby, and the Elections Office has signage that will have a phone number for visitors to conduct business.
Walker said county staff members are using an incident management team, which is part of the incident management system that is typically applied when preparing for and implementing measures associated with an emergency or a disaster.
They currently have staff members on sections of the team for communications, operations, planning, finance/administration and logistics, and have added backup employees for each position.
All employees who can work from home already have been directed to do so for the foreseeable future, Walker said. Employees who self-identify as high-risk and cannot work from home are being put on administrative leave with pay. The county also has developed an employee roster for essential services.
“For example, an employee who is not at risk, may not have the ability to work from home, may not be what’s considered an essential performance or function might be repurposed to do work that otherwise someone else might have to do,” Walker said. “So having that roster enables us to use all of our available resources to the best of their ability so that we can maintain a continuity of operations.”
Kilroy said the county does not have a hazard pay policy, and the county is continuing to review its leave policies.
Albemarle also has kept its parks open, but has closed bathrooms and playgrounds.
Walker said heavy use of the bathroom facilities was causing a significant burden on staff to keep them clean.
“Candidly … we can’t keep them stocked with toilet paper,” he said.
At this point, the Board of Supervisors still has a meeting scheduled for April 1, but that could change.
County Attorney Greg Kamptner sent a letter requesting a formal advisory opinion from Virginia’s attorney general as to whether the COVID-19 pandemic is considered a “disaster” and if that would allow for local governing bodies to adopt ordinances that would allow electronic participation in meetings.
Friday night, Attorney General Herring issued an advisory opinion stating that state code “permits public bodies that are unable to assemble in person because of the unique characteristics of the COVID-19 virus to meet electronically to make decisions that must be made immediately and where failure to do so could result in irrevocable public harm,” but that “the General Assembly did not intend to permit public bodies to handle all business through electronic communication means, even during a declared emergency.”
“For that reason, public bodies should carefully consider whether taking a given action during a meeting held by electronic communication means is truly essential and should defer any and all decisions that can be deferred until it is once again possible to meet in person,” the opinion states.
More information about changes and adjustments to county operations can be found at albemarle.org.