The county government campus is about to become much quieter again.
For the second time since the coronavirus pandemic began, the Crow Wing County Board voted to restrict public access to county buildings. The Thursday, Nov. 12, decision came during an emergency meeting, and the restrictions are set to begin Monday.
One key difference this time is residents who must do business with the county in person will still have that option by appointment only. The board also authorized County Administrator Tim Houle to make necessary exceptions to the restrictions on a case-by-case basis. All county functions will continue to be available online or by phone.
There are dropboxes in front of the land services and community services buildings on Laurel Street. Those working with a social worker or probation officer should continue to communicate with them directly. Those with questions may contact 218-824-1067 or email email@example.com.
At Thursday’s meeting, Houle shared data showing the rapid rise in COVID-19 cases in the county. He noted in one week’s time, there were 560 new cases in the county, which accounts for nearly 28% of all the confirmed cases recorded among county residents since March. He pointed to the impacts of this rise throughout many sectors of the community, including school districts and hospitals.
Houle encouraged commissioners to consider restricting in-person access to county board meeting again as well, opting instead for virtual meetings.
Chairman Steve Barrows said he was concerned about the impacts of the rising case numbers on the community.
“The people who wish to not comply are only exacerbating the situation,” Barrows said. “My personal opinion is I think we need to seriously consider a motion to close and by appointment only be allowed into our buildings.”
Commissioner Paul Koering, who attended the meeting virtually, asked Houle to explain the purpose of the Plexiglas barriers and other mitigation measures the county has purchased since March.
“Isn’t that sufficient to protect the staff?” Koering said. “And then I guess the question is, I don’t know, I still go back to what I’ve said before, this government that we have here, people are paying for this. And we’re restricting access for them to come into their government that they’re paying for.”
Koering said when he sees big box stores closing down, he’d be more willing to look at implementing restrictions again. He said he was also worried about the impact on education because of distance learning.
“I don’t favor making any changes right now,” Koering said. “I think the reason we’re seeing more cases is we’re doing more testing. So obviously when you’re doing more testing, you’re going to, obviously, the case count is going to go higher.”
It isn’t only cases rising in Crow Wing County, however. Hospitalization figures have exploded, with 30 county residents admitted for serious symptoms from COVID-19 in the past week alone. This follows a trend across the state. In addition, while more tests are being completed compared to the early days of the pandemic, the positivity rate in Minnesota continues to rise. Tests reported Wednesday, for example, returned a positivity rate of 30%. State health department officials have repeatedly noted a positivity rate above 5% is the point at which concerns increase.
Barrows said he understood Koering’s point, but he believes Crow Wing County has a duty to protect public health and safety.
“Your Walmarts, your Targets, all those places, I’m not sure they have a public health concern, they have a bottom line concern,” Barrows said. “And to me, that doesn’t address the issue that’s in our communities.”
Commissioner Rosemary Franzen noted school leaders are making the decision to go to distance learning primarily because of severe staff shortages.
“The numbers are just astronomical,” Franzen said. “ … The numbers are growing to the point that we can’t ignore this anymore.”
Commissioner Doug Houge said he expected the safety equipment the county purchased will remain in place for months or possibly years to come.
“I’m in favor of doing this with no date of reopening,” Houge said. “We just have not denied people access to get the information they need or get the projects that they’re working on. All of that is still available, just in a different manner. I think it’s the right thing to do at this point.”
Addressing Koering’s questions about the glass barriers, Houle noted while they work well to prevent transmission between staff and the general public, it’s more about what can happen on either side of the barrier in the midst of uncontrolled spread. He noted recent staff exposures led to the temporary closures of both the land services and community services building to the public.
Houle said at this time, the county is able to fully deliver its services for residents. But the worst case scenario may include prioritizing services.
“If things get worse, then we may need to — if we run into problems mustering a workforce — have to decide what are the most important things we’re going to do, and what are we not going to do,” Houle said. “I don’t want us to get there. And I don’t know if there is anything we can do to stop it. I think the community can stop it, I don’t think we can stop it.”
Despite the expressed misgivings from Koering, the measure ultimately gained unanimous support. The board will determine at a later date to reinstate in-person services after evaluating the county case numbers. County board meetings can be viewed live on the county website or on YouTube at https://bit.ly/3lqI93W. Those interested in participating in a county board meeting or public forum should contact the county administrator’s office at 218-824-1067.