Coronavirus: State of emergency declared in county

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City, county issue special edicts in response to virus.

  • Chick-fil-A employees take orders and payment from customers Wednesday afternoon as patrons form a line in their vehicles. The eatery is not allowing customers in its dining room and only providing drive through services because of the COVID-19 global pandemic. (TONY BRITT/Lake City Reporter)
    Chick-fil-A employees take orders and payment from customers Wednesday afternoon as patrons form a line in their vehicles. The eatery is not allowing customers in its dining room and only providing drive through services because of the COVID-19 global pandemic. (TONY BRITT/Lake City Reporter)
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A state of emergency has been declared by both Columbia County and Lake City officials, a move that will allow the two local governments to bypass some of the red tape that would have otherwise slowed their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The county declared its state of emergency during a Wednesday morning meeting, with the city following suit later in the afternoon. 

During a state of emergency, county and city staff are authorized to enter into contracts without approval from the City Council or County Commission, both of which have canceled their upcoming meetings. It also allows staffers to bypass the normal process for making large purchases and is a prerequisite for the city and county to be reimbursed by FEMA for certain expenses related to the crisis response. 

The county’s state of emergency is effective for seven days but can be renewed weekly as necessary. The city’s state of emergency is effective for 60 days and can also be extended if need be. 

A statewide emergency declaration is also currently in effect. Health experts advise against gatherings larger than 10 people. 

During the county’s emergency meeting at the downtown courthouse annex late Wednesday morning, commissioners unanimously voted to cancel their regularly scheduled meeting today, though not without hesitation. 

Commissioner Ron Williams questioned whether it was the best call. 

“We already have an agenda out,” Williams said. 

State law doesn’t allow local officials to hold public meetings by teleconference, though the governor has been asked to waive that rule, County Attorney Joel Foreman explained.

The city already canceled its March 16 regular meeting and is assessing the situation. 

Commission Chairman Toby Witt wasn’t eager for the county to do the same.

Witt pointed to low attendance at county meetings and the size of the meeting venue — a school board-owned auditorium that the county is allowed to use —  as factors that would mitigate the risk of transmission. 

“I think what separates us from the city is that large room,” Witt said. 

Commissioner Bucky Nash, who was present by teleconference and could therefore not vote according to state law, advised taking the safer approach and halting today’s 5:30 p.m. commission meeting. 

“Everybody else is taking all possible precautions and we’re looking for ways to continue doing business as usual,” Nash said. 

Commissioner Rocky Ford agreed. 

“I don’t know why we’d take the chance at this point for a meeting,” Ford said. 

Still reluctant, Witt questioned how canceling the meeting would affect the county’s response to the pandemic. 

“Because we’ve got to keep functioning as a government body,” he said. 

The dilemma — weighing the risk of a public meeting versus the need to appropriately respond to the crisis — isn’t unique to this community, said County Attorney Joel Foreman. 

“That’s the rock and a hard place that every single local government in the state is in right now,” Foreman said. 

But even the reluctant commissioners ultimately acquiesced. They voted not only to cancel today’s commission meeting, but meetings for all subordinate bodies as well —  entities such as the planning and zoning board, for example. 

Earlier in the emergency meeting, Witt took a detour from the discussion on canceling public meetings and talked about the pandemic overall. 

One of the biggest risks, Witt warned, is young people, who can carry and transmit COVID-19 without showing symptoms themselves. 

“It is now known that the virus is hidden in millennials,” Witt said. “... The millennials are key because they like to congregate in large groups.”

Around 1 p.m. Wednesday, various local officials met at the Columbia County Emergency Operations Center to discuss the ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Participants included County Manager Ben Scott, County Commission Chairman Toby Witt; Lake City Mayor Stephen Witt; Assistant City Manager Vince Akhimie; and representatives from the Columbia County Health Department, Sheriff’s Office, Lake City Fire Department, Lake City Police Department and Century Ambulance.

The meeting was not open to the public, but Scott provided an update via email. 

Tom Moffses, who leads the Columbia and Hamilton County Health Departments, explained the process for collecting and testing specimens from suspected carriers of the virus, Sheriff Mark Hunter walked other officials through the screening process for new arrivals at the county jail, and first responders described their criteria for wearing personal protective equipment when to the home of someone with symptoms of COVID-19. 

Members of the public are asked to avoid county offices unless “absolutely necessary,” according to the email from Scott recapping the meeting. 

Libraries were closed as of 6 p.m. Wednesday and will remain closed for the remainder of the month. 

When the City Council met hours later to vote on its state of emergency declaration, Mayor Stephen Witt spoke about how difficult it has been to gauge the crisis so far.

“One thing that’s very evident in this thing is it changes hourly,” Witt said. 

City Manager Joe Helfenberger, who attended the meeting by teleconference, said the city was weighing whether to close City Hall to the public. 

Helfenberger is expected to announce his decision today. 

In all likelihood, City Hall and city-owned parks will be closed, Helfenberger said in a Wednesday phone interview. 

City utility customers will be encouraged to pay bills via a drop box outside City Hall or online.

“We just have to reorganize a little bit to best handle the coronavirus situation,” Helfenberger said. 

Late Wednesday afternoon, the office of Columbia County Tax Collector Ronnie Brannon announced it would no longer be serving out-of-county residents effective immediately.