TAWAS CITY – The Iosco County Board of Commissioners, as well as other offices within county government, took steps on March 18 to close government offices to the general public, as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic precautions and response are conducted in the United States.
Commissioners voted unanimously to close the county building until April 5 to the general public. Iosco County Clerk and Co-Administrator Nancy Huebel said before that date, however, it would be evaluated by county government on whether to keep the building closed longer to the public.
The measures are to keep county government open, while at the same time protecting county employees – who are still working in the offices – from potential infections from the public, and vice versa.
Huebel said that residents are encouraged to use online and phone options where possible for conducting county business and transactions. Under the resolution “where mandated services cannot be accomplice online or by mail, services may be rendered case-by-case by appointment.”
All county resources and information can be found by visiting the county’s website at www.iosco.net.
During the meeting, commissioners worked to conduct the public meeting as fast as possible – and with as few people as possible – to comply with requests from state and federal government to keep crowd sizes down.
“It’s been a long couple of days for everyone for myself including just dealing with issues,” said Chairman Robert Huebel. “We are going to move through this meeting as quickly as possible and we already have more than 10 people gathered, so we’re not supposed to be doing that, we are just going to get county business done and move forward.”
The meeting itself lasted just over 45 minutes and began with the resolution closing the facilities to the public, except under special circumstances.
Huebel said the move was to keep vital essential government business going, but to work to protect the staff and public at the same time.
“We are trying to protect the staff both financially and in every other way,” he said. “We don’t want to injure people health wise.”
Nancy Huebel said that the county has been instructed by its legal council that if there are employees who hare at high risk, or have childcare issues arise, should take accrued time off at this time. Under the resolution county employees can expect full pay if the building is eventually ordered to be completely shut down. They were also asked and expected to maintain clean work stations and to disinfect areas of the building where they were working under the resolution.
Commissioner Terry Dutcher said currently it appears that at the federal level with a myriad of bills being passed to help with economic relief with the Covid-10 virus, that there could be relief financially for such employees that choose to go with that option.
After discussion the board unanimously passed the resolution, and fielded comments from Iosco County Emergency Management Coordinator Ed Rohn, who said that similar steps had taken place already in Arenac County, where he also works as an emergency management coordinator.
“Everyone is trying to do the same thing,” Rohn said.
According to Rohn there are at least 14 counties in the region who have done the same thing as Iosco County, he said there are provisions with the courts in those other counties where if individuals need things they can come into the buildings, such as personal protection orders.
In Iosco County it is the same, with the Iosco County Trial Court limiting interaction with the public, according to Court Administrator Carla Grezeszak. Court will now be restricted to four hours a day from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. “for persons who need to do business with the court. Public access is restricted to the business offices of the court located in the rear of the county building.”
Grezeszak said in the order that the court is required to conduct certain hearings and provide services to the public during the emergency, but wishes people would utilize phone or Internet to contact the court when applicable.
“We ask that the public conduct as much business as possible via telephone, fax and email,” she said. “We have a general email address email@example.com.,” she said. “Messages and pleadings will be received from this email by the appropriate division. People with more specific questions may contact the court at 362-4441 and speak with someone or leave a voice mail. Staff will forward calls and voice mails to the appropriate staff,” she said.
Much like the county building closure, the order will remain in effect until April 5.
Under the order, which was approved by several judges including presiding 81st District Court Judge Christopher Martin, there will be certain parameters for different types of hearings in the public.
One that has been announced is that the courtrooms and other space are now limited to no more than 10 persons, including staff, effective immediately. The court is closed to the general public except for essential functions involving health and safety and Constitutional rights.
To confront this unprecedented public health crisis, the Michigan Supreme Court issued Administrative Order 2020-2, which highlights in specific detail essential functions. This order supersedes any previously issued Local Administrative Orders regarding the crisis.
“Courts statewide are taking this step in unison so that we send a clear message to the public that we are taking every possible action to stop this virus while continuing to provide essential services to our citizens; also protecting our staff and users of the court,” said Grezeszak in a statement.
Essential functions include arraignments for in-custody defendants, review and determination of requests for search warrants and personal protection orders, certain child protective proceedings, and critical issues regarding child support and child custody, among others specified in the order. The new order also provides courts with additional flexibility to conduct business using technology such as video and telephone conferencing.
At the Iosco County Jail measures have been taken as well, according to Sheriff Allan MacGregor, to limit the amount of inmates that are being held at the jail and only incarcerate those who are essential to keep behind bars for alleged crimes, he said.
“We have about 60 people that have to be in there,” he said for the number of inmates at the jail to commissioners. “We are limiting of what can go into the jail; anything of any minor significance is not going into the jail, they can write tickets, they can go through the court with that. We are not going to bring people in if we do not have to.”
MacGregor said the jail has to keep minimum staffing and he worries that there could be a time when that may not be possible because corrections officers may be sick and unable to work. He said, however, some local agencies have said they would provide help when they could.
He said the Michigan Department of Corrections has locally offered to help, along with the Tawas Police Authority. He said judges were looking to see if some incarcerated inmates could be released from jail on a tether instead of being locked up in a jail cell.
As far as work release, MacGregor said that program has been shut down at the jail, along with inmates attending any Alcoholics Anonymous or church meetings for their sentencing, to limit exposure.
“They can’t have those meetings anymore,” he said.
MacGregor also issued new standards jail employees entering the jail prior to entering the facility. For example all arresting officers and bailiffs will have a health screening, including their temperatures taken, prior to entering the building.
“The over 100 degree the Officer shall be denied entry,” according to the guidelines. “They shall not advance further into the jail unless emergencies exist. Arresting officers will be asked to drive around to the front to complete the paperwork with dispatch associated with the arrest.”
Another new regulation is that the face-to-face attorney room is closed in the jail, and shall not be used unless it is for mitigating factors that have been approved. Additionally, all deputies, officers, troopers, corrections agents and probation officers shall be able to meet with inmates through the visitation rooms on telephone with no face-to-face contact unless mitigating factors approved by administration.