Following Gov. Tim Walz’s guidelines, municipal public works departments in the metro area are limiting operations to those deemed critical while suspending some seasonal tasks and hires.
While tasks such as mowing and preparing ball fields may be halted for now to comply with stay-at-home and social distancing orders, public works employees remain focused on maintaining utilities, water and sewer — not to mention the potholes left to fill.
“One advantage of this whole situation is there’s not a lot of traffic,” said Grant Riemer, public works director for the city of Ramsey.
His staff was responding to critical road repairs, he said, while curtailing less pressing tasks such as mulching or repairing damage to grass done by snowplows this winter.
Riemer has staggered start times for the department’s 17 full-time employees to avoid having everyone together in the morning or during lunch.
Ramsey officials, along with those in cities including Golden Valley and Woodbury, are making no seasonal hires until they see how the outbreak plays out.
Burnsville officials, meanwhile, said they won’t be making any seasonal hires this year. Training around 50 seasonal workers would be nearly impossible without risking close contact, said Public Works Director Ryan Peterson.
He said it will be a challenge to provide the same level of services without seasonal staffers, so he will rely on his 50 full-time employees to work together and change shifts to meet demand. Each staffer was working longer days, three days a week, to make up for staggered scheduling.
“Our primary focus is on having as few people in any one area as possible,” Peterson said. Street sweeping, he said, involves limited interaction and requires only one person in the vehicle, so that work will continue.
But Edina and Woodbury are holding off on cleaning most streets. Edina announced it was suspending mowing of boulevard medians until further notice and discontinuing routine street sweeping, except for critical areas such as those directly adjacent to lakes and creeks.
Brian Olson, public works director in Edina, said his staff is limiting day-to-day maintenance while still responding to emergency calls. Of his 44 full-time employees, about 10 are reporting to the office every day and the rest are undergoing training via video at home.
“We are trying to do our very best with a skeletal crew to not spread this virus any further,” he said.
In Golden Valley, Public Works Director Tim Kieffer said many of his 30 full-time employees are working remotely while remaining ready to respond to emergencies.
Last week a crew was called to a water main break, and this week workers cut down trees and cleared debris from Bassett Creek to stem potential flooding.
In going to a minimal level of operations, Kieffer said his team was essentially waiting to see how the virus evolves “and what we’re able to do to adapt.”
“We’re waiting to see how bad it gets and when it start to peak,” he said. “Then we can adjust our scheduling and get back to some sort of normalcy.”