Several metro county boards on Tuesday declared states of emergency to combat the coronavirus outbreak, as the Hennepin County Board approved $3 million to quarantine at-risk homeless and the Ramsey County Board granted the county manager wider latitude on spending.
As if to underscore the severity of the situation, three of Ramsey County’s seven commissioners participated in the meeting by phone rather than in person, one because a family member was awaiting coronavirus test results. The four who attended sat with empty chairs between them.
“We are doing the very best we can, the absolute most in real time and around the clock to provide for all of our safety and well-being in this situation,” said Ramsey County Board Chairwoman Toni Carter.
At Tuesday’s Hennepin County Board meeting, where only 10 chairs were set up for the audience, commissioners ratified the state of emergency declared late Monday by Chairwoman Marion Greene. The county is shutting down 41 libraries, 18 human services hubs and 6 service centers until April 6.
The board also approved several measures to help ease the financial impact should any of the county’s 9,000 employees become ill from the virus.
“Residents already count on the county as their services safety net,” Greene said. “These are uncertain times. We all have to our part to weather the storm.”
The Hennepin board’s special $3 million appropriation will go toward finding housing and isolation spaces for quarantining the homeless or other vulnerable residents who either have the virus or are at high risk. The homeless population is of special concern since many likely won’t be getting tested for the virus and nearly 150 who go to shelters daily are senior citizens.
The board also approved $2.5 million for virus-related expenses. The county has set up an emergency operations center, limited conference travel, restricted meeting sizes and encouraged employees to work from home.
Similar action was taken Tuesday in other metro counties.
In Anoka County, all face-to-face services were closed until March 30 at human service and licensing centers, libraries and park buildings. Dakota County officials will close all in-person services starting Wednesday and continuing through at least April 1. Facilities closed to the public will include administration centers, libraries, licensing centers and park facilities.
Washington County will suspend all public-facing services at libraries, service and license centers from Wednesday through March 24. Carver County suspended walk-up services Tuesday through March 27, and Scott County closed all county buildings starting Wednesday, to continue at least though April 1.
‘Scary and stressful’
The Ramsey County Board approved the use of $1.8 million from its general contingency account to set up two new quarantine and isolation facilities for homeless people battling the coronavirus. Officials did not indicate where the facilities would be located.
The Ramsey board suspended nonemergency walk-up services through March 23, including at government centers in and near downtown St. Paul, the St. Paul CareerForce Center and county libraries.
It also gave County Manager Ryan O’Connor the authority to spend up to $1 million per contract on his own, without board approval. Ordinarily the Ramsey County manager may spend no more than $175,000 on contracts without board approval.
Commissioners who listened into the meeting by phone included Victoria Reinhardt, who was self-quarantined as a member of her family awaited coronavirus test results, and Commissioners Jim McDonough and Mary Jo McGuire, who stayed home because they weren’t feeling well.
The first case of coronavirus in the state was identified in Ramsey County on March 6. As of Tuesday morning there were 12 cases in the county, and county health workers were helping individuals in quarantine by providing face masks, thermometers and groceries, Hedin told the board.
Ramsey County Public Health Director Kathy Hedin tried to reassure leaders and the public that they were prepared for the pandemic.
“Many people will be able to recover from COVID-19 in their homes,” Hedin said. “We know that this is scary and stressful. Our public heath department has been planning for emergencies for a long time and we are here, we are ready and we are prepared to work with the community.
The Ramsey County Board chambers, typically full of staffers and members of the public, were largely empty save for a few county officials. Commissioner Trista MatasCastillo entered the chambers, sat down in her seat and vigorously rubbed her hands with sanitizer.
Officials said Ramsey County services will reopen on March 23 with redesigned approaches that reduce person-to-person contact while ensuring accessible and efficient service options.
During the Hennepin board’s open forum, several members of AFSCME, which represents thousands of county workers, voiced disappointment in the board’s actions for employees.
Ali Fuhrman, president of Local 2822, said library and service center workers were still being asked to come in and do busy work. Employees who may be sick are fearful of losing their jobs if they take time off, she said.
“People are already being paid, so why can’t they just work from home and get paid?” she said. “Why should you be penalized or put the public or your family members at risk?”
Hennepin County Board Member Jan Callison applauded Tuesday’s actions, saying they were “the right answers for today.”
“I didn’t like the ideas until I had to like the ideas,” Board Member Mike Opat said. “I was at a restaurant yesterday when the governor announced the shutdown of restaurants and schools. I could just see the pained looks on worker’s faces.”