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Tuesday's Forsyth County Board of Commissioners' work session looked a little different than most, with commissioners preparing dinner, petting their pets and even having the invocation and pledge of allegiance via webcams.
Streaming to the public on the county's website, board members held their first meeting by teleconference as a means of social distancing in response to COVID-19.
“This is sort of unprecedented, but it is exciting that the county has the technical capability to pull this off,” said County Attorney Ken Jarrard. “I know a lot of jurisdictions are struggling right now in this time of the pandemic and attempting to avoid public assemblies."
Under the unique circumstances of the meeting, the commissioners discussed several topics related to the county's response to the novel coronavirus outbreak, including discussing the decision to close all parks except the green spaces, a change that will not cost county employees paid time off for those who cannot work and what actions might need to be taken down the road.
After the county previously closed most parks and recreation facilities except green spaces and the Big Creek Greenway for two weeks, commissioners further discussed the decision at the meeting.
“What we’re looking at doing now is really shutting down the parks because the concern that I think we have and that other communities have is that people can't be easily held responsible, so we have the challenge of people getting exposed at our restroom facilities, at playgrounds, at the skate park, at a basketball court because if they can get in they're using them,” said County Manager Eric Johnson.
Johnson said the county had received reports of people continuing to use the facilities, including a report of a coach holding a lacrosse practice with 20 players and photos with lots of hikers present on Sawnee Mountain.
Parks and Recreation Director Jim Pryor said it has been exciting to see so many people using the parks during the coronavirus outbreak to keep healthy but there were concerns that “there are so many ways to spread germs and not social distance.”
“Right now we've gotten to the point, and it's kind of tragic, that we're kind of forced to take these measures to close down parks,” he said. “It's one of those things that we're having to protect people from themselves because they're not doing it on their own to monitor their health and distancing.”
Pryor admitted that keeping people out of parks would be a challenge
“The toughest issue we face with our parks right now is we have large spaces of land, we're inviting in that neighborhoods are connected to all the parks, so there are very few parks that we have a gate in front of the park and we can just lock it down completely and not let people there,” he said.
He said the county would lock the gates they could, close facilities except for certain restrooms and put up signs letting the community know the parks are closed.
Johnson said the county had also been a target for thieves for one of the outbreak's most sought out resources.
“Apparently for the last week we've been one of the sources for toilet paper for the community because people have literally broken into the toilet paper holders to steel the industrial-sized rolls,” he said.
Compensating county employees
After discussing at a previous meeting a policy that would mean county employees who had to stay home and could not work during the coronavirus pandemic would need to use their PTO days and, if those ran out, would still be paid for time off but extra days would be borrowed from future benefits, commissioners reversed course.
At Tuesday's meeting, commissioners instead decided on paying all employees their regular salary for two pay periods from Monday, March 30 through Sunday, April 26 and allow employees to take as much time off needed without costing them PTO.
“What we see as the positive impacts for this is that it really would help to bring certainty to employees and their families regarding their financial income and make sure that they have benefit coverage during this time,” said Pat Carson, director of personnel services.
The compensation change was allowed under the recently approved federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act.
As part of the policy, department heads are maximizing the number of employees who can work from home or a safe location and must spread work between employees who stay home and those who cannot.
Employees will be required to clock in and out and will need to contact managers daily for work assignments.
The change also recommended that those who were not able to take time off be compensated in the future, such as potential future PTO.
Following Gov. Brian Kemp's statewide declaration closing bars, banning most public gatherings with more than 10 people and asking those with a high risk of catching the disease to shelter in place for two weeks, commissioners discussed how the decision will impact the county and other potential items.
While bars are not allowed under Forsyth County ordinances, which instead allows for restaurants that make at least 50% of their sales from food to also serve alcohol, District 4 Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills did raise questions about whether the order would close businesses with “bar-like activities,” such as being open late and hosting live music.
Jarrard said those businesses would likely be closed but not because of what they sell.
“Even if we don't meet the definition of a bar, this order says if you are conducting an operation where 10 or more individuals are congregating and are not separated by six feet, you’re in violation of this order,” Jarrard said.
Commissioners also directed staff to send a letter to restaurants that serve alcohol clarifying a policy approved by the board last week allowing to-go sales of packaged, unopened beer and wine.
As some cities in the state have issued shelter-in-place orders -- and commissioners said some residents have requested the county to do so -- no action was taken.
“It is a profound intrusion on civil liberties when you begin to command that our citizenry must remain in their homes, and even the order signed by the city of Atlanta allows quite a few exceptions to that,” Jarrard said. “I would suggest to you, and again, no one has suggested let's do this... I'm simply saying, to me, this would sort of be the thing of last resort if our EMA and professionals were coming to it [and] the medical community.”
County officials said once everyone settles in with the current changes, they will take a look at any future actions.
“Maybe what we need to do is let those rules get promulgated, let me and [Emergency Management Director Chris Grimes] and maybe the county manager look at them... then we might need to hold a special-called, time-sensitive meeting to see if these rules, once they've promulgated, give us a sense of comfort or give us a sense that we need take some further action at the board level,” Jarrard said.