Crow Wing County extends local emergency declaration
The county administrator said he sees a role for the county to help businesses reopen, and the emergency declaration helps achieve that goal.
The Crow Wing County Board voted to extend a declaration of a local emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic Thursday, April 23, but not before a discussion surrounding its necessity.
The unanimously approved declaration extends through either the end of Minnesota’s peacetime state of emergency or the next 30 days, whichever comes first. State statute permits a local emergency to be in place for 30 days before requiring it be renewed. The board previously approved a declaration March 24.
Why a local emergency?
Board Chairman Paul Koering opened the discussion Thursday by asking County Administrator Tim Houle to make the case for extending the emergency declaration.
Houle offered three reasons for maintaining the local emergency:
The ability to continue sidestepping regulations tied to purchasing, such as going out for bids, which allows prioritization of buying from local businesses;
Continuing limited in-person access to county board meetings due to social distancing guidance from state and federal public health officials; and
Keeping county buildings closed to the public while safety measures are established in anticipation of the lifting of Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order on May 4.
“Bid law confines us a bit, and so I think our efforts to try to buy local just for the normal course of county government, that gets suspended,” Houle said. “We would not be able to continue that focus.”
Houle said the county is in a good place with its personal protective equipment stockpiles, but it’s unknown how things will change. Looking ahead, the administrator said he sees a role for the county to serve as a conduit for private businesses in need of things like masks and gloves to reopen as quickly as possible. He said county officials are working closely with the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce and the Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corp. to share ideas within industries for best safety practices.
“We have access to supply chains they will not have access to. We will have access to quantities that they will not have access to,” Houle said. “And so what I see is for the potential for us to acquire and they cover the cost. It’s almost like a pass-through. Under normal circumstances, we can’t take public assets and just pass them through like that.”
Under normal circumstances, selling something owned by county government would require accepting sealed bids or placing it in a public auction. An emergency declaration removes those barriers, Houle said.
Get in touch with county government
The declaration includes a requirement to livestream county board and planning commission/board of adjustment meetings on the county’s website. The county already routinely stores videos of every county board and planning commission meeting. Access to a number of other committee and other public meetings varies. Check Brainerd Dispatch’s Sunday edition every week for local government agendas and how to listen in.
Visit https://bit.ly/3a8MQcP to view the livestream or past meeting recordings. Meetings are also streamed on YouTube at https://bit.ly/2S2ElsS . Members of the public wishing to comment can write to email@example.com .
More aggressive testing
Commissioner Bill Brekken asked whether the declaration played a role in supporting more aggressive testing for COVID-19, following Walz’s announcement Wednesday of a partnership with the University of Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic to greatly expand the state’s testing capacity. Brekken said he worried the metro area would be the focus of such efforts.
Michelle Moritz, county public health supervisor, said she wasn’t sure whether the declaration itself played a role, but in conversations with the Minnesota Department of Health, she’s made clear the county’s interest in being a part of ramped up testing efforts. This includes serology testing, which by identifying the presence of antibodies would reveal whether someone already was infected with COVID-19.
“That’s what I believe is going to get us back to work is knowing if people, how widely spread has this disease been,” Moritz said. “ … At this point, we don’t believe that we’re anywhere near the peak of disease.”
Koering said people are starting to push back against many of the measures, and many people believe they’ve already been sick from the coronavirus. He offered an example of a friend who returned from New York City in February, and both she and her husband became very sick.
“Coming from a farm boy that doesn’t know anything about this, but I just think it’s going to have to work its way through,” Koering said. “This notion that we can keep things locked down and it’s going to prevent it, I don’t know that that’s going to happen.”
Moritz said she’d heard a number of similar stories to Koering’s example, but she said locals who’d already undergone serology testing were surprised to learn they hadn’t yet been infected.
“Shockingly it came back that it was negative. It was gravely different, their tone from before when they thought they already had it, to their tone when they got their test results that they hadn’t,” Moritz said. “They weren’t as confident as they were prior, the prior day, even. I would be more confident if I knew I had already had it.”
Koering then shared concerns about access to local government, noting discomfort with closing the meetings for in-person attendance by the public and the closure of county facilities.
“Obviously I’m not an expert. I just know that I’m getting quite concerned that I think people, eventually, if this goes on for much longer, people are just not going to listen to their government,” he said.
Houle said increasing anxiety among the public is exactly the reason he thinks the county should use its resources to help the local economy reopen as fast as possible.
“Unlocking the door won’t solve this problem because there’s going to be too many people who are still afraid and they won’t come. And so it’s this combination of unlock the door and do it with safety,” Houle said.
Brekken asked about whether there could be some control over managing costs associated with the county’s response to COVID-19. As of Wednesday, the crisis has cost Crow Wing County more than $600,000. Houle said that was an appropriate consideration.
“I would welcome whatever ideas you have in that regard. You could think about setting a budget limit before which you’ve got to come back,” Houle said. “… I do understand that you want to make sure that you are managing the crisis and that you’re giving direction to staff on how you wish us to do that.”
Sheriff weighs in
Sheriff Scott Goddard approached the microphone with his K-9 partner Lincoln after raising his hand. Goddard said things have dramatically changed in the last 30 days, and to not extend the emergency declaration would be sending the wrong message.
“We cannot predict any of this, and if we did we’d be sitting right next to the president answering questions,” Goddard said. “This is not, in my mind, the messaging we want to send forward. We need to send that we’re being proactive in taking the steps necessary.”
Goddard said he looks to the expertise of Moritz and Emergency Management Director John Bowen because the county pays them to make decisions and develop protocols for this type of situation. He said what may seem adequate now might not be in the future.
“I don’t know what we need. I don’t know if the masks we have are going to be adequate, I don’t know if we’re going to need six times that,” the sheriff said. “No one knows that answer because we simply don’t know what this is going to evolve into.
“ … This motion to me is a non-issue. This is something that should be just part of our playbook that we’re taking and making sure we implement.”
Commissioner Rosemary Franzen said she’s received calls from constituents who believe the county’s emergency declaration is the reason businesses in the area are closed. But those closures were ordered by the governor, not the county board.
“I think we need to make it perfectly clear that we are not shutting down businesses because that’s what people seem to believe is happening with our declaration and that’s not what we are doing,” Franzen said. “We’re just trying to make sure that people are safe.”
Commissioner Steve Barrows said he regrets that commissioners have to make this decision, but said he thought it was the right one to extend the declaration.
Commissioner Doug Houge said he agreed with the sheriff’s comments about the unknowns of the situation. Houge, who owns Crosby Bar and Bottle Shop, said he personally knows the pain of those with closed businesses.
“As a business owner, I’ve taken a direct gut punch on this thing,” Houge said. “But I’m not ready to open my doors to the public and risk my employees, risk my mother who works there. You know, the health of them is more important than a business at this point, not knowing what’s coming at us yet.”
Houge said the county wasn’t denying residents access to the government, it was just doing things differently.
“No matter what you look at today, it’s different than it was 30 days ago. I’m just not ready to relax on this. I think there’s a lot more to be learned,” he said.
In the end, Barrows made the motion to extend the declaration, which was seconded by Houge. The motion passed 5-0.
CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .