While some local governments have ceased certain functions during the COVID-19 pandemic, Albemarle County has kept most everything moving along.
Even though the main County Office Building, on McIntire Road, is mostly closed to the public, almost all of Albemarle’s governmental functions have continued virtually or been modified for in-person situations throughout the pandemic.
During Phase Two of Virginia’s reopening plan, which began Friday, Albemarle will open up more of its functions but continues to keep most employees at home. The County Office Building is closed until at least July 6.
One of the main goals for the county during the pandemic has been to maintain essential services for the public. In a recent interview, Deputy County Executive Doug Walker said the goals became the guidance for all of the decision making around the pandemic.
“Most of what local government does, in our view, is essential, or else we wouldn’t necessarily be doing it,” he said. “We do provide critical services, and every jurisdiction I think has to figure out that right posture as relates to balancing off their goals.”
In March, Albemarle’s Board of Supervisors passed an emergency ordinance to ensure continuity of government during the pandemic, which also outlined essential governmental functions from 14 county offices and departments. The board adopted an ordinance to essentially extend the emergency ordinance in April, which will expire no later than six months after the board ends the local emergency for COVID-19.
The county is using an Incident Management Team to manage operations, and has run most issues through that structure.
“Every time we got lost, we went back to the goal — is this an essential service and can we do it,” said county spokeswoman Emily Kilroy.
The Incident Management Team initially met twice a day, seven days a week, and had a daily call with staff from the city of Charlottesville, the University of Virginia and the Thomas Jefferson Health District. Now, the team is meeting once a day, five days a week, with additional meetings as needed, and holding a weekly call with the other organizations.
The county has continued to accept community development applications and payments online and in person three days a week.
“We quickly looked at that component of our organization and said, ‘What can we do to ensure that that segment of the community continues to move forward?,’” County Executive Jeff Richardson said. “That’s a pretty significant element of our local economy and of our local economic development.”
In May, the County Office Building-McIntire averaged about 21 customers per day, most in the Community Development Department.
When it comes to inspections, building occupants have had to clear out of the space before county inspectors will come in.
For taxes, an ambassador tent has been set up outside the building to assist customers, but the county is asking people to pay online, over the phone or in one of the dropboxes on site, if possible.
The county’s other two goals during the pandemic are to reduce transmission among staff and to protect people who are at higher risk for adverse health complications.
Most county staff members are working from home. About 75 non-public safety staff members are currently working in the building.
A survey to staff members about teleworking and engagement ended last week, and nearly 400 people responded. Walker said the results will be compiled this week.
“I’m a little old school in the context of really wanting people present, and what I’ve learned and through my experience is you can be present without being physically present,” Walker said. “It’s a balance. I can’t imagine ever being only virtual, but certainly we have learned through the use of technology the ease with which department directors and supervisors and subordinates are connected to each other if not daily, almost daily.”
The county paused a facilities master plan study for the time being, said Assistant County Executive Trevor Henry, to better incorporate teleworking and employee feedback.
The county has phased in virtual community meetings, and all meetings will be held online as of this month. Walker said the earliest the county would hold in-person meetings is the end of July, but that has not yet been decided.