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County passes emergency declaration

By Reed Anfinson
Swift County Monitor-News
At an emergency meeting Friday morning the Swift County Board of Commissioners unanimously passed a resolution declaring a state of emergency due to the spread of the coronavirus and COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus.

Swift County Emergency Manager Bill McGeary told the board that while it did not appear that the emergency declaration was necessary at its March 17 meeting, that new guidance from the Department of Homeland Security now required the declaration.

The emergency declaration allows the county to track the steps it is taking to deal with the spread of COVID-19. “It will allow you to keep track of what we are doing…but as this thing gets bigger and the county takes a more aggressive role, it will allow you to free up some funds that will probably be reimbursable.”

Those funds would be coming from the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) as Congress ramps up its funding to help out states.

At the same meeting, the county board also voted to close all county facilities to the public. Some staff will continue to come to work while those that can will work from home, Administrator Kelsey Baker said.

Does declaring the emergency put any requirements on the county as far as actions it has to take once the declaration is in place” Commissioner Eric Rudningen, District 5- Kerkhoven, who joined the meeting by phone, asked.

It doesn’t, McGeary replied, based on his past experiences. “Just do what you have to do and keep track of your actions. “Then when help comes to town, you report everything you did and then you stand back and wait…” for reimbursement.
“But this situation is different,” he said. “Everything I have dealt with in the past is with a disaster after the fact. This is like us standing on the street watching a tornado come at us and wondering what to do. I have never been there before and most of us haven’t.”

With chairs spaced out six feet in the basement meeting room of the Law Enforcement Center, Commissioner Chair Gary Hendrickx, District 1-Appleton, called for a motion to approve the emergency declaration.  Ed Peterson, District 2-north Benson and Benson Township, made the motion with a second by Rudningen.

Commissioner Pete Peterson, District 3-south Benson and Torning Township, voted with Hendrickx, Rudningen and Pederson in favor of the motion. Commissioner Joe Fox, District 4-Hegbert Township, did not participate in the meeting.

At this point, the challenge for the county board is that it doesn’t have enough data about the severity of the spread of the virus to take the actions that are needed. That means it could be continually changing the steps as the landscape evolves.

Hendrickx said the county board would keep the public up to date on what is happening on its website. “I believe we are going to have a lot of changes; I just don’t know what they are going to be at this point,” he said.
County buildings closed to the public

“It is my recommendation that we close the doors to the courthouse effective immediately after this meeting,” Baker told commissioners.

Access to the court office on the second floor of the courthouse would remain open, she said.

“To ensure the safety of our employees and residents, we should shut the doors to the public and do any essential services over the phones, by emails, by mail,” she said. County employees would only have face-to-face meetings on an emergency basis.

Next week property tax statements are going out. There is a drop boxes at the courthouse that the public can use rather than coming into the courthouse, she said. If there are questions, call the staff.

The LEC has already locked its lobby.

Staff can use Skype, Go to Meeting, Zoom, telephones, and other ways to continue to have meetings electronically, Baker said. “It is going to change the way we are conducting services, but we will try to figure out a way to do so online or over the phone.”

Baker asked county commissioners to keep county buildings closed to the public until further notice. At future board meetings, it can reevaluate the policy. The county should look to Countryside Public Health for when it should open its buildings, Baker said.

Commissioner Rudningen wanted to make sure the public was aware the county was taking the action to close its offices on the recommendation of Countryside Public Health. The public health agency serves Swift, Chippewa, Big Stone, Lac qui Parle and Yellow Medicine counties.

Countryside Public Health conducted an emergency board meeting earlier Friday morning, its Executive Director Liz Auch told commissioners. Its offices would close as of noon Friday, she said. Everyone is going to be working under the emergency incident command structure, she said.

“The reason we have gotten to that point is that there data that coming out from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and epidemiologists from the White House that we have to ‘flatten this curve,’” Auch said.

Flattening the curve refers to slowing down the spread of COVID-19.

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