Daviess County COVID-19

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Commissioners tighten courthouse access

Even before the Daviess County Commissioners could get their meeting started, the issues of social distancing and limiting the number of people in a room, as a result of rules surrounding the coronavirus came to the forefront. The issues surrounding the disease and the orders coming from the state on ways to deal with it stayed in the center of the discussion.

Once the commissioners got the room down to the maximum 10 people and got a video feed going for their remote access to the meeting through Facebook the county went to work on its business but each piece of business had a COVID-19 element.

One of the biggest items was a decision to further restrict access to the courthouse to only "essential business." Under the plan people will continue to go into the east side door of the courthouse where they will be screened by deputies. Those deputies will then speak with county offices to determine whether the business is "essential" before allowing the person to enter the courthouse.

"It was definitely necessary to put some policy together," said president of the Daviess County Commissioners Nathan Gabhart. "Fortunately, some of our departments and the judiciary took some steps on their own before this."

"We have tried to move as many of our non-essential hearings as we can to later dates," said Daviess Circuit Court Judge Greg Smith. "Of course there are some things the court has to deal with that are time-sensitive. Those things like initial hearings and search warrants, Children In Need of Services cases have to be taken care of. We have had the deputies at the desk work to limit the people coming in for those to just the most necessary ones. The public has been understanding."

The courthouse, though, is not just limited to the courts. There are a number of other pieces of the people's business that go on there. "Each office has its own unique challenge and things that it deals with that will require them deal with the public," said Daviess County Auditor Patty Ball.

Because of that the deputies at the door will be in contact with each office to help determine what is essential and what can wait or be handled differently. "We want people to use the technology available," said Gabhart. "You can accomplish a lot of the same things without having to come into the courthouse. It makes everyone more efficient and a little safer."

The commissioners took the move to further restrict access to the courthouse at the recommendation of the County Health Department. "You really need to limit everything as much as possible," said Dr. Merle Holsopple, Daviess County health officer. "It is really important to close the courthouse down to essential needs."

"We wanted to publicly restrict access to the courthouse," added Gabhart. "There is a stay home order in Indiana. All non-essential matters should be postponed. Let's just wait this thing out for a couple of weeks."

While in discussion with the Health Department on the courthouse access plan, health officials placed a request for help. "We are having a hard time getting personal protective equipment," said Dr. Holsopple. "I'd appreciate your help in getting ahold of any of that."

The county has issued a health emergency. The local emergency in conjunction with the previously announced state and federal emergencies in connection with the pandemic is expected to put the county in touch with state and federal agencies that may be holding reserves of the protective supplies.

The commissioners also made some adjustments to their employee policies to reflect time that may be missed due to the COVID-19 concerns. "We are going to follow the private sector's lead and anyone that needs to be home, should be home," said Gabhart. "We need to wait this thing out as this wave comes in, just to be safe. Life is too short. We are directing the department heads to work with their staff for any social distancing days they need to take with staff that they feel are at risk. If work can be done from home, let them do it from home."

Currently, the county is officially adding in "social distancing" days as a paid excused absence. "If people need to take that time, we will pay them," said Gabhart. "We will sort everything out later when the threat has passed."

That same policy will apply to "essential departments" like the county highway department. "The essential departments we have to maintain are still run by humans," said Gabhart. "We want to be smart and protect everyone, even in the essential areas."

The coronavirus threat has led to operational changes at the county highway department. The office has been closed to public walk-ins. The employees have been instructed to go directly from their personal vehicles to their work vehicles and head directly to the job. "We are trying to cut down on as much social interaction with the public as we can," said Daviess County Highway Supervisor Phil Cornelius. "We are also trying to put social distancing in place with our employees."

The coronavirus is not just impacting the personnel decisions at the highway department, it could also wind up slowing down one of the county's biggest road projects. The phase four expansion on the CR 900E improvement project now has appraisers out trying to put together proposals for needed land acquisition on the multi-million-dollar project.

"The appraisers tell us they are quickly approaching the point where they will need to begin having meetings with landowners," said Cornelius. "Depending on how things go over the next couple of weeks we may have to delay those meetings and that could slow down the project."

Even the annex project, which has been hit with months of delays, appears to be slowing down even further because of the governor's stay home order. "Some of the work that was underway has been stopped for a couple of weeks because of the virus," said county owner's representative Mike Schapker. "In the meantime we are trying to work out the final documents with our contractor, Danco, on their contract and working with some of the subcontractors on when they might be able to get in and finish their work."