Though many Grand County buildings and operations are closed, the County Council held its regularly scheduled meeting on March 17, discussing government operations during the current state of emergency, how the county and the local economy will be affected, and summarizing current closures and restrictions.
Executive order changes meeting rules
The council unanimously approved an executive order issued by Council Chair Mary McGann, which suspends existing county policy that a quorum be present in-person when conducting meetings via telecommunication, and also delegating the duties of Chief Executive Officer to the County Council Administrator, who at this time is Chris Baird.
The order allowed for Tuesday’s meeting to be conducted with most participants calling in remotely: McGann, Baird, County Attorney Christina Sloan, and County Clerk Quinn Hall were present; council members Gabe Woytek, Rory Paxman, Curtis Wells, Jaylyn Hawks, Evan Clapper, and Greg Halliday called in.
Members held a brief discussion of the implications of the order.
“This is kind of getting more into the mold of what our form of government potentially is going to be in two years,” said Wells, referring to the county change in form of government process that is underway, and will include some form of county executive. “The elements of this are just going to make us more efficient.”
Council members appreciated that the move allows Baird to take executive action on bureaucratic and trivial items, shortening meeting agendas for the council.
“I was a little skeptical to deputize one person in all of this,” said Clapper, but noted that because Baird’s communication had been “top-notch,” he felt comfortable with the order. “At this time, timeliness is essential,” he said, indicating that the order is justified if it can allow the council to respond quickly to circumstances.
Council meetings are still open to the public, though only one press member and no citizens attended Tuesday’s meeting. Baird said county staff will be brainstorming ways for the public to participate remotely, so they can encourage public input while still promoting social distancing.
“One of the things that the executive order will allow me to do is deal with executive decisions without them going to the council,” said Baird. “90% of a council agenda is executive—the legislative stuff still has to go before the council. We’re probably not going to hold council meetings unless we have to to pass legislative actions.”
Economic relief for businesses and employees
McGann noted that the U.S. Small Business Administration has posted a link for disaster loan assistance on their website, sba.gov. Baird said that the county’s Director of Community and Economic Development (CED), Zacharia Levine, is working to share information about available small business economic relief with the community.
The CED Facebook page contains a list of resources for businesses, including small business assistance loans, a local revolving loan fund being established by the CED, and resources for employees.
“All of these funding opportunities are brand new, and so nobody’s been able to explain exactly how they’re going to work or how the money’s going to come,” said Baird “There’s still a lot of questions to be answered about all of that.”
“We’re talking a lot about things that are currently in place,” said Clapper. “I want to throw out there that there is some other possible relief coming down the pipeline.” He was referring to a bill introduced by Utah Senator Mitt Romney intended to offer relief and assurance to workers: the coronavirus Worker Relief Act, which proposes a variety of economic relief measures for individuals, students, small businesses, and health workers affected by the COVID-19 outbreak and related restrictions.
“Our country is facing a serious health crisis, and Utahns shouldn’t have to choose between a paycheck and protecting their own health,” Senator Romney stated in a press release about the bill.
The council unanimously approved an amendment that moves a part-time employee in the county’s Information Technology department into a full-time position with benefits.
“Due to the technological challenges of having many employees working from home and remotely, and all these electronic meetings we’re going to be heading into, I felt that it was necessary to bump up that part time position to a full time position,” said Baird. He noted that the county’s budget would not be harmed, because staff in the Human Resources department had agreed to postpone the promotion of one of their part-time staff to a full-time position to allow for the increase in IT staff.
Councilmember Gabe Woytek, thanked HR staff, saying, “We should all keep our eyes out in the departments. If there are re-orgs out there that are going to save costs… I just want to keep that in mind as we’re talking about controlling costs,” he said, acknowledging that the staffing decision in the HR department was a sacrifice for those employees.
All councilmembers agreed the state of emergency will affect both the local economy and the county’s finances.
“I laid off over 50 people today,” councilmember Rory Paxman told the council. Paxman’s family operates the Canyonlands by Night and Day tour company.
“I just wanted to make sure that our county is penny-pinching and making sure we’re doing everything we can as a county. I’m worried about the county being able to make it through this.”
McGann agreed that the economic impacts of the pandemic will be significant. “There’s not going to be any entity in this community, state or nation that will get through this unscathed,” she said.
Updates on state of emergency
After moving expeditiously through the agenda items, McGann opened the floor for any discussion and updates regarding the COVID-19 state of emergency.
Baird recapped recent updates from the county: the western half of the county courthouse is closed, while the Justice Court and the District Court remain open; the Moab Information Center, the Grand County Library, and the Thompson Welcome Center are all closed until further notice.
Per the Southeast Utah Health Department (SEUHD), overnight accommodations and campgrounds are directed to serve only county residents or essential workers; restaurants are limited to take-out or delivery services; theaters and bars are closed; even primitive camping is restricted to locals.
“It didn’t appear to affect retail,” Baird said of the Mar. 16 order from the SEUHD. “But we certainly would encourage retail establishments to participate in social distancing to the greatest extent possible.”
McGann added that the Visitor Centers at local national and state parks are closed, and she anticipated the parks being entirely closed soon, including the Sand Flats Recreation Area.
The county and the Health Department have arranged with the Utah Department of Transportation to erect signs along the highway north and south of Moab, alerting travelers that overnight accommodations in Moab are closed.
“I want to recognize the effort Chris Baird has put in on this emergency,” said McGann. “It has been above and beyond the pale. I am proud and excited to have him as our county administrator. I don’t think anyone could have risen to the occasion more than he has.”
Baird in turn recognized the cooperation and contributions from other local agencies and the community.
“I’ve been very impressed with everybody in this entire community,” Baird said. “It’s very difficult times, but we’re all working together very well.”
As of March 18, there are no confirmed cases of coronavirus/COVID-19 in Grand County. Anyone with questions or flu-like symptoms is instructed to call the Coronavirus Hotline at 435-719-3998.
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