County News

COVID-19: Counties move to ‘next normal’ as they reopen

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Communities in counties across the country are getting back to business. With almost all states beginning to reopen in some manner, counties are following reopening strategies as the situation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic progresses. 

Butte County took the lead in California as one of the first counties to meet criteria set by Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) for easing restrictions to reopen.

Butte County Supervisor Debra Lucero told county officials during NACo’s recent “Preparing to Reopen America’s Counties” virtual town hall that the county is keeping public health officials’ advice in mind during their planning process to reopen. 

The county had 40 cases of the virus as of May 27. Previously, the county was maintaining 18 cases in total for weeks. Since reopening on May 9, COVID-19 cases doubled. 

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“We have seen a definite uptick, a doubling of cases when we were very steady before,” Lucero said. “At this point, our public health officer believes that we do have community spread and we will be watching this.”

Lucero described Newsom’s roadmap of four re-opening stages for counties in the state. The state is now considered to be in early stage 2, which allows retail, related logistics and manufacturing, office workplaces, limited personal services, childcare and essential businesses to open with modifications.

Counties in the state are able to move through stages faster if they see downward trending hospitalizations, a target number of cases per population count, increased testing capacities and contract tracing abilities.

“Each stage has very specific things that we are required to do, and we are following that quite closely in Butte County,” she said.

During the reopening process, Butte County established sector teams including health, government, education and faith-based teams to evaluate how to operationalize these guidelines.

Hair salons and barbershops have now opened in the county and must maintain a log for the previous 14 days with customers’ names, contact information, times of appointments and stylists, Lucero said. These logs may be provided to Butte County Public Health for contact tracing.

“I think that as we have been moving through this plan, our expert panels continue to meet with issues that pop up,” she said.

On the East Coast, Brian Abernathy, managing director of the City and County of Philadelphia, said there has been a steady decline of COVID-19 cases since mid-April.

The City and County of Philadelphia, with a population of 1.5 million, is surrounded by counties in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland.

Abernathy said the close proximity to these other counties impacts Philadelphia’s health care system, encouraging the city-county to approach reopening in a partnership within the five-county region and the state of Pennsylvania.

“We spent weeks developing shared principles, wanted to share metrics, wanted to move together as a region,” Abernathy said.

However, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) indicated Philadelphia would be reopening and moving to the yellow phase on June 5 as part of the state’s red, yellow and green phased reopening system.

The yellow phase includes reopening retail businesses, childcare centers, outdoor youth day camps, parks-related amenities, manufacturing, warehouse operations and office-based business, among others, all with restrictions and encouraging telework to continue where feasible.

Following state guidelines, Abernathy said Philadelphia is following the plans for a tiered reopening, keeping in mind principles such as limiting the number of people inside businesses, expanding testing and contact tracing, following social distancing guidelines and protecting vulnerable populations.

“We will be providing very strict restrictions and guidelines on what we’re calling ‘safe mode,’” Abernathy said about entering the yellow phase.

As these reopening plans take effect, county officials are looking inward to their own offices to see what new changes to adopt when it comes to county employees returning to work.  

Executive Managing Director Joe Judge of Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL), a real estate firm that advises county governments and a NACo partner, said the firm is helping clients generate re-entry manuals as counties look to move to the “next normal.”

“There’s no silver bullet solution to re-occupying your workplace,” Judge said. “There are many ways we can seek to minimize risk within the workplace and it’s up to each county in their internal teams to determine their comfort level on what is right for each county.”

According to a survey conducted by the firm, the top five solutions to bring the workforce back into the office include providing personal protective equipment, continuing telework options, adding additional janitorial services, rotating employee shifts and taking temperatures of employees, according to JLL Managing Director Adam Cook.

Cook advised counties take precautions needed in common areas of office spaces as well as adding sanitation stations, signage to remind employees of social distancing behaviors and workstation modifications to reduce contact points.

JLL Senior Vice President Bella Schiro said she believes one third of employees will never work in the office again, one third are anxious to return and the final third lie in the middle and will work both remotely and in the office.

“For county and local governments, we also think that there may be changes in codes and regulatory requirements that may mean you create a new department,” she said. “They’ll review functions or regulations that tie into sustainability and wellness features… to handle some of those aspects that come out of this pandemic."

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