County presents re-opening plan following COVID-19

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @PGJournal
Posted: June 3, 2020 | 12:30 p.m.

Social distancing, screening questions and temperature checks among safety measures

PRINCE GEORGE – As Governor Ralph Northam continues to relax some restrictions put in place due to COVID-19, localities are facing similar questions about how they will handle reopening facilities to the public in the coming weeks while protecting the health and welfare of both employees and the community. 

Prince George County has undertaken those discussions and presented its re-opening plan for the first time to supervisors during their work session at the close of last month, which aims to have the government center open in some manner to the public for the first time since March.

As cases of COVID-19 continued to rise across the Commonwealth, in mid-March, Prince George County leaders moved to close its offices for two days before reopening to the public but asking the community to limit their visits to pressing matters and to call or email county departments to conduct business. By March 30, after Governor Northam’s stay-at-home executive order, the county would announce their buildings would be completely closed to the public and staff in those buildings would work staggered schedules to maintain continuity of government operations. 

Since that time, the county has extended the closure by several weeks, with the latest extension set to expire on June 7. 

Nearly two weeks after Prince George joined the vast majority of Virginia’s localities in stepping into the first phase of Northam’s “Forward Virginia” business reopening plan, Prince George County presented its own plan for reopening government offices to the public, with social distancing and screening highlighting their efforts.

“We want to provide public access in the most safe way possible while protecting our citizens, visitors, employees, and their families,” Prince George Deputy County Administrator Julie Walton shared during last week’s work session. “Also, looking at how to allow business and transactions to occur while also maintaining and occupancy limits.”

According to Walton and county general services director Mike Purvis, the government center along Courts Drive would be the first building to be reopened in the plan while other facilities, such as the Central Wellness Center along Route 156, would resume operations in a phased approach. 

In order to align with both state guidelines and those detailed by the Centers for Disease Control, the county will have a staffed reception area in the main lobby of the government center. In that area, screenings with no-touch temperature scanners and a series of short screening questions will be delivered verbally to those desiring to enter the building. 

The county stressed “identifying information [will] not be asked or recorded” as part of the verbal screening. For employees, they will be asked to “verify their health screening questions at regular intervals electronically” As of last week, they will also be required to wear a mask during any interactions with the public.

To that end, supervisors during their discussions after the presentation voiced their support to decline entry to the building to those who opt to forgo the temperature reading or screening questions or don’t wear a mask or face covering while inside. 

Walton’s presentation came only hours after Governor Northam’s announcement of an executive order requiring masks or face coverings by Virginians “in public indoor settings,” an order that took effect last Friday. The executive order is not enforced by police and will be regulated through the Virginia Department of Health and local health districts.

With that, county leaders felt some form of security should be in place as to not place county staff in the position to deny entry to those who choose not to follow the screening and face covering procedures required to do business inside the building.

“Reception staff would need that additional assistance,” Walton detailed, with Supervisor Floyd Brown, Jr. echoing the sentiment.

“It would be a little unfair to put staff in a mode where they have to do enforcement,” he said, with other board members supporting the idea of denying entry to those who decline to wear a mask or follow the safety measures as part of the opening. According to the county, those individuals would be directed to do their business either by phone, electronically, or by depositing their items in the drop box outside the building, all of which have been used by the county during the public closure. 

Once inside the building, visitors will find limited seating areas and floor stickers that detail social distancing spacing. Similar to what has been done at many businesses, glass and plexiglass separation panels have been installed at all public interaction counters. 

In addition, limits to how many customers can be in a particular department will be in place, with others being asked to wait in the reception area until space is available for them to do business. 

Gloves and masks will also be provided to visitors in that reception area as part of this plan.

While the plan talks about re-opening, some measures will remain in place, including encouraging and expanding the use of electronic meetings and continuing to limit public interactions to “brief encounters.”

“Prince George County will provide social distancing, [personal protection equipment], and hand washing education to employees, and will encourage and continue telework opportunities,” Walton detailed. 

For next week’s proposed opening date, Walton said additional PPE for both visitors and employees are needed. Those units are a difficult commodity to come by as medical professionals, businesses, and individuals seek masks, gloves, and other items to protect themselves from the spread of novel coronavirus. 

Along with PPE, floor stickers, signage, training materials, part-time staffing to handle expanding cleaning efforts, along with establishing a formal reception area all need to be carried out by June 8. 

Before concluding, Supervisor Brown suggested potentially limiting the first week of public access to only two to three days so both the community and employees can get used to the new processes that will be in place due to COVID-19.

“That gets us in a mode of going through and working out any kinks with testing people or anything else,” he explained. “Instead of the possibility of opening for five days and being bombarded. People would get frustrated because it may not flow smoothly so maybe we should look at phasing it in so during the first week, maybe we are open two or three days to the public. We would be servicing the public but it gives us a chance to get the process down and make the experience as smooth as possible for people.”

The county is also considering doing public access by appointment similar to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles’ recent limited reopening. In late May, the agency opened roughly a dozen offices across the state for appointments to handle specific needs, such as registration renewals and processing new ID cards or driver’s licenses.

Over the last several weeks, over 60,000 appointments have been booked across the Commonwealth.

Any decisions regarding the county’s reopening will likely be shared via Prince George’s social media channels on Facebook and Twitter, along with their COVID-19 closures.

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