Butte County closes admin offices, initiates COVID-19 response protocols

Butte County closed its administrative offices to the public Friday as a precaution for COVID-19 concerns. Pioneer file photo

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BUTTE COUNTY –– Butte County initiated pandemic response recommendations Wednesday to mitigate risks related to COVID-19.

“This isn’t that extreme, but it’s kind of a moving target at this time,” Fred Lamphere, Butte County sheriff, said to the county commission Wednesday. 

Lamphere offered a list of nine recommendations for the county to consider adopting to aid in the pandemic response. 

Acknowledgement of any employee who has traveled outside the state to any state experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak within the last seven days, requiring that employee to quarantine themselves for 14 days.

Lamphere said this method is a national standard.

“We’ve got a couple (employees) that I know that are out of the state right now that will be returning to work, (and) they’re in states that are affected (by the virus),” he said. 

Recommend that each public office that remains open will allot the first hour-and-a-half of each business day be prioritized to serve elderly and vulnerable citizens. 

Lamphere said the effort would offer accessibility and peace of mind to those at higher risk of developing more extreme and potentially life-threatening cases of COVID-19. 

“(To give them) confidence when they come there that they’re not going to be met with a lot of the general public,” he said. 

Recommend that, beginning Monday, public county offices reduce hours of operation to fewer days per week or by reducing the number of hours an office is open each day.

Debbie Lensegrav, county treasurer, said that 97% of the business conducted in her office could be handled via telephone and by mail. She said this would enable her and her employees to man the office each day, take payments, and answer questions while avoiding unnecessary interaction with groups of people.

“It’s just the pubic having to understand, ‘We’re still here to help you … we’re just asking it to be done through the mail or over the phone,’” she said. “You can always mail in your taxes, you can always mail in your registration (paperwork), you can go down to the mall in Rapid City and get your registration if you’re a South Dakota resident. We could eliminate the traffic coming into the building and still serve every single person that there is there to serve.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends people stay at least six feet away from one another, which lessens chances of catching COVID-19. The method is being referred to as “social distancing.” Other examples of social distancing that allow people to avoid larger crowds or crowded spaces include working from home, closing schools or switching to online classes, visiting loved ones by electronic devices instead of in person, and cancelling or postponing conferences and large meetings. 

In addition to avoiding close contact with others, regular hand washing and the exercise of other good hygiene practices, the CDC recommends that people stay home when sick and avoid gathering in groups of 50 or more people.

“This six-feet distance that we’re supposed to keep, that’s impossible at our counters,” Lensegrav said, citing the configuration of the public counter and the office’s computer terminals inhibit the ability to comply with the standard.

Lisa Nelson, director of equalization, said her office has been doing its part to limit interaction by ceasing field visits to homes and properties. Instead, they’re working with county residents to email photos to the office to perform assessment procedures.

If a county employee falls ill, it is recommended that the employee immediately go home. If the employee exhibits symptoms of COVID-19, they must be tested and receive approval to return to work.

Encourage all employees to self-regulate themselves related to self-hygiene and keep work areas clean and sanitized.

Lack of availability of disinfecting supplies could pose a problem for some county offices, Lensegrav said. Her staff has been disinfecting public counters and spaces each hour. And now, her office is down to less than one container of disinfecting wipes and one can of aerosolized disinfectant. 

“And we’re on a waiting list to be able to get more of those supplies,” Lensegrav said, adding that she and some of her staff have brought some of those supplies into the office from home. “I feel 100% (confident) we can control (risks) within our office and (with) our employees … but I can’t control what comes through that door or (know) where they’ve been.”

Auditor Elaine Jensen said the county does have more cleaning supplies on order, but there’s no word on when they can expect them to become available or be delivered. 

Mandatorily change trash can liners daily to mitigate risk of harboring potential illness-bearing materials within county offices.

Increase daily disinfecting efforts of all public areas including wiping down all handrails and doorknobs.

Limit congregation in county office lobby areas to no more than four people at a time.

Lensegrav voiced concerns about the feasibility of this recommendation. 

“I just don’t know how we limit the amount of people that come through the door,” she said.

Lamphere said the sheriff’s office is adjusting some of the 24/7 testing protocol to lessen interaction as much as possible.

The 24/7 Sobriety Program, utilized across the state, is a criminal justice concept with a non-traditional approach to reducing recidivism in crimes that have a nexus to alcohol or drug abuse. The program mandates offender sobriety through intensive testing for drug and alcohol use. In Butte County, program participants are required to perform sobriety testing, like preliminary breath testing, sometimes numerous times daily at the sheriff’s office.

“We’re doing some alternative testing,” Lamphere said. “That will slow down the amount of people coming in and out of the courthouse on our end and hopefully protect our staff.”

Encourage public meetings to be held by teleconference, when possible.

Courts

Fourth Circuit Court Judge Michael Day spoke to the commission Wednesday about the justice department response to prevent further spread. He said that circuit court judges met with the Supreme Court and the heads of the state’s justice and judiciary systems on March 13, resulting in the state’s highest court declaring a judicial emergency due to COVID-19.

The order gives the presiding judges of the state’s seven judicial circuits authority to modify or suspend court rules as warranted for dealing with the pandemic. That could include closing courtrooms, relocating proceedings, or otherwise modifying regular operations.

In Butte County, Day said all jury trials scheduled for March and April have been moved to later dates. 

“I entered an administrative order this week that was approved by the Supreme Court … what we’re doing here is we’re asking for all nonviolent cases, arrests … to try to push those out as far as possible,” he said. “We’re still going to have court … but we’re going to do our best to try to voluntarily comply with the spacing recommendations.”

Day said that a typical magistrate court session has between 50-60 people crammed into the county’s courtroom, causing a potentially dangerous setting for those gathered, considering the circumstances.

“We’re going to change that; we have to,” he said. “We’re going to have to figure out a way to spread that out so we don’t have those people together.”

Community members are fearful. Day said that he was set to preside over a Lawrence County jury trial this week but more than 50 of the potential jury pool called the court, refusing to sit on a jury in a courtroom with any group of people.

Day said he’s formed a task force to brainstorm about how the county, who primarily jails its inmates in the Meade County Jail in Sturgis, will handle the potential need to quarantine those it has jailed.

“It’s really fluid right now,” he said, because the circumstance and restrictions related to the pandemic are changing sometimes hourly. “If everything goes hopefully (well), and it settles down towards summer … our summer is going to be just packed with civil trials, court trials, (and) jury trials.”

What’s next?

With the exception of adjusting the hours of operation within county offices, the commission unanimously adopted the recommended pandemic protocols Wednesday. On Friday, the county announced that Lamphere, who is also the county’s emergency manager, with coordination with the commissioners, closed the administrative county offices from the public, with a tentative reopen date of April 6. This includes the offices of: treasurer, auditor, equalization, and register of deeds. The offices will continue to be staffed but will solely be reachable via phone, email, or mail. The offices of the sheriff, clerk of courts, and state’s attorney remain open to the public at this time but county officials are asking that residents call or email inquiries prior to coming in person. You can find contact info for each office at the county’s website: www.buttesd.org

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