The Walker County Commission voted 3-0 to pass a resolution in emergency session Wednesday to cancel or empower cancelling meetings through May and to close county facilities to the public due to the spread of coronavirus - but the commission did not place any orders or guidance on the public in terms of shutting down businesses or staying at home.
The Walker County Commission voted 3-0 to pass a resolution in emergency session Wednesday to cancel or empower cancelling meetings through May and to close county facilities to the public due to the spread of coronavirus.
The commission also passed the exclusion of certain employees from the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA).
According to the Alabama Department of Public Health, more than a 1,000 COVID-19 cases were reported by Wednesday in the state, with 32 being in Walker County. Seventeen deaths were reported statewide by then, and none in Walker County.
The meeting itself was strange in that social distancing was adhered to. Chairs for the audience were spread out facing the commission. The conference table usually perpendicular to the commission was turned to be parallel in front of the commission dais in order to seat two commissioners, with three commissioners to be on the dais.
However, District 4 Commissioner Steven Aderholt was absent on the dais, and only District 2 Commissioner Jeff Burrough sat at the table. District 3 Commissioner Ralph Williams, who has had recent health problems, was also absent. Only Chairman Jerry Bishop and District 1 Commissioner Keith Davis sat in the regular seats on the dais.
Probate Judge A. Lee Taylor attended the meeting in a mask. He confirmed after the meeting an employee at his office who had no symptoms had tested positive, and that he was taking protective measures with the mask as a precaution. He has taken a COVID-19 test but has not received results yet.
"I won't know for a week," he said. "In an abundance of caution, I'm doing this (the mask) for everybody else. I've got four of us, including myself, working right now." He continued to urge people to use mail and internet to do business if possible.
The resolution passed by the Walker County Commission said, "All county employees who are considered first responders as defined by the U.S. Department of Labor and are hereby excluded from the applicable provisions of the FFCRA and shall not be subject to the expanded FMLA and paid sick leave requirements of the FFCRA."
County employees considered to be first responders will include - but is not limited to - all of the following: employees of the Sheriff's Office, district road crews, public highway and transportation workers, road and bridge employees, engineering workers, the Solid Waste Department employees and all Emergency Management employees.
County attorney Richard Fikes told the commission Wednesday that as far as the resolution, one usually thinks of police and firemen as first responders.
"But the Department of Labor has broadened that definition to include basically anybody who is required to keep the infrastructure going, including public work employees. It is pretty broad in that definition and it covers the employees that you've indicated here," Fikes said.
Commissioners had already cancelled the April 6 meeting. The April 20 Walker County Commission meeting was also cancelled by the commission in the new resolution, setting the next meeting for May 4. However, the resolution allows the chairman, Jerry Bishop, to cancel the May 4 and May 18 meetings if he sees fit.
"All Walker County offices and district offices are hereby closed to the public," the resolution said. "The Walker County Courthouse and Annex are closed to the public except for emergency court hearings or other types of emergencies that may arise. This will be reevaluated as of May 4, 2020. Essential county employees as determined and instructed by the appropriate hiring authority or appointing authority for each department shall continue to physically report to work for their normal shift."
Bishop said at the meeting, "The commission has thought hard over this over a period of time." He pointed to actions taken by Tucker; he along with Revenue Commissioner Jerry Guthrie, have closed their offices to public traffic.
Davis thanked staff and department heads who have continued to work through the health crisis and have stayed open to provide services for the citizens.
"That is our goal, for government to provide services for the citizens," he said. "What an outstanding job staff has done, and departments - Jerry Guthrie and Lee Tucker and his staff, Robbie and her staff, staffs across - the sheriff department, the jail, and on and on and on, what has been done to continue to function and stay open and conduct business. The county will still be open. The courthouse doors will be locked, OK?"
He said people could still call offices or go online for services, such as paying property taxes or garbage bills.
"We're closing the courthouse doors for safety concerns for our employees and for our citizens, which is number one right now in all our hearts and minds. That is the number one most important thing we're dealing with," Davis said.
Davis said the county will follow the guidelines of the federal and state on COVID-19, such as through social distancing.
Bishop said Guthrie and Tucker were "on board" with the commission's decision on how to handle the matter.
Burrough said, "As we are facing these unchartered waters in this situation, we're trying to make it as safe as possible for each employee also." He said people are scared, not knowing where co-employees might have been or what they've been doing. He said social distancing needs to be kept up.
Davis said he hopes the courthouse will open back up on May 4.
"That is the tentative plan right now. Again, this is a very fluid situation. We're in times none of us have ever seen. As I continue to say, pray, pray and pray. That's what we've got to continue to do each day," he said. "I've seen more working together and more teamwork, amazing employees and department heads and elected officials in the past month."