PREVIOUSLY: Board of Supervisors to Consider New Sick Leave, Temporary Telecommuting Policies for County Employees at Special Meeting This Afternoon

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Screenshot from Monday’s meeting.

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In a special meeting of the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors this afternoon, department heads including the sheriff, the district attorney and others laid out their tentative plans for maintaining essential county services during this unprecedented COVID-19 outbreak.

District Attorney Maggie Fleming announced that her office will not be charging any defendants who aren’t already in custody — the types of cases for which her office typically sends out letters — for the next few months, at least. 

Fleming said her office will also be reducing staff as much as possible since many of her employees are responsible for taking care of their children, whose school has been canceled during the pandemic, and/or their elderly relatives, who have been told by the governor to stay home. 

Many attorneys in the DA’s office will be appearing by phone, rather than in person, for preliminary hearings, sentencing hearings and some trials, Fleming said. 

“We won’t be doing business as usual because we simply can’t,” she told the Board of Supervisors. She later noted that the courthouse was packed with people this morning. It’s ironic, she suggested, that the state governor has issued guidelines about how the public should be conducting itself, “and here at the scene of county government we’re in violation.”

The purpose of today’s meeting was to consider a resolution to adopt a range of policy measures in response to the COVID-19 emergency. The measures include loosened restrictions on employee leave, extra precautions for vulnerable workers and added discretion for department heads to limit or cancel services that require in-person interactions with the public.

Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson attended the meeting remotely, his voice echoing through the chamber via phone, because he is the midst of a self-imposed quarantine. Wilson represents the North Coast region on the California Coastal Commission, and after attending a meeting of that body in Santa Cruz last week he learned that Commission Chair Steve Padilla had tested positive for the novel coronavirus

Throughout the meeting, county officials expressed gratitude that the Board of Supervisors is taking this health scare seriously, and they outlined plans to reduce and modify services to lower employees’ risk of exposure.

Planning and Building Director John H. Ford said his department faces particular challenges since much of its business is conducted in person. “We take in a lot of applications,” he said. “A lot of material comes in over the counter. Frankly, it worries our staff during this period.”

His employees are developing ways to conduct more business electronically or by phone, Ford said, though financial transactions will be a challenge. If customers can’t pay by credit card or via phone, he said, his department may just have to “catch up with [those] payments at a later date.”

Then there’s the matter of public meetings. Ford said there’s an item on tomorrow’s Board of Supervisors agenda that’s likely to attract a large number of people, and the Planning Commission has a meeting scheduled for Thursday evening.

“It’s worth considering not having that meeting at all,” Ford said, noting that some of the people involved are among the community’s most vulnerable (meaning elderly, presumably). “Realistically, requiring people to come to hearings seems to be counter to what we’re trying to do,” he said.

Shortly after the meeting concluded, the county announced that Thursday’s Planning Commission meeting has indeed been canceled.

Sheriff Billy Honsal said he is slowly staffing up the county’s Office of Emergency Services in response to the public health emergency. It’s currently staffed from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. but could eventually be available 24/7, he said. 

As public safety officers, he added, “we don’t get a chance at a day off.” But his office is looking to reduce services to only the essentials. At the county jail, for example, they’ve implemented no-contact visits, and they recently held an emergency meeting with the Chief Administrative Office and court personnel to see if they can use video conferencing, allowing inmates to attend court hearings remotely.

“We’ll be able to pull that off,” Honsal said, adding that the first such use of the technology would take place this afternoon. These procedures, he said, “will keep our inmates safe, keep people safe in our court system and still allow [defendants] to have due process … .”

Connie Beck, director of the Department of Health and Human Services, warned that some essential services may take longer than usual to provide since a number of employees in the department are 65 or older while others might be considered medically compromised. 

Humboldt County Library Director Nick Wilczek announced that all county libraries will be closed for the rest of the month, which prompted a mild protest from Second First District Supervisor Rex Bohn. 

“We’re telling people you can’t go anywhere; for many people you are the last resort,” Bohn told Wilczek. “I’d like to see something a little bit more creative than ‘shut down for two weeks.’” However, the decision remained in place.

Ultimately, the board voted unanimously to implement the proposed resolution, but not before Bohn observed that he, Fennell and Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone are all above the age of 65, and thus technically supposed to stay home. 

As of this writing, however, tomorrow’s Board of Supervisors meeting remains on the calendar. 

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Note: This post has been updated from its original version to clarify that three, not two, supervisors are over age 65.