GOSHEN — The Elkhart County Board of Commissioners is considering further restrictions and guidance regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.
Monday’s discussion followed an indication given Friday that a new public order from the Elkhart County Health Department was in the works that would address businesses, bars, schools and gatherings.
Commissioner Suzie Weirick said later Monday that an updated resolution from the board would likely reflect the latest guidelines from the state and the county health department, such as which types of face masks are appropriate to use. But she would also like to see more concrete measures put in place, such as restricting access to county buildings.
“We have to have a discussion on whether or not to close, I don’t think all, but some of the county buildings to the public until we get some issues under control here from a health perspective,” she told the other members of the board Monday morning. “Other counties are doing this, some of our local municipalities are already doing this, and with the health orders that the health officer is considering, and some of the problems in the community, I think we need to have a greater discussion on this.”
She asked about restrictions similar to those enacted in spring, when the buildings were closed at the entrance doors but numbers were posted that allowed people to call and make an appointment.
County office buildings include the administration building, at 117 N. 2nd St., Goshen, and the public services building at 4230 Elkhart Road, Dunlap, which houses the zoning and planning departments. The health department also operates out of the Lincoln Center at 608 Oakland Ave., Elkhart.
The courts buildings in Elkhart and Goshen are covered by a separate set of rules and are not governed by the commissioners.
‘Situation is dire’
The other board members showed less willingness to restrict public access.
“I can see some of our buildings, but I don’t know with the public service building, that creates an issue with access for people getting permits and also with the health department,” said Commissioner Frank Lucchese. “That might be the one you may want to continue to keep open.”
Commissioner Mike Yoder said he was reluctant to put new rules in place if the main purpose was just to send a message. He worried the restrictions would create an inconvenience without increasing safety.
“I talked to a number of department heads and other elected officials, and I haven’t sensed that there is a concern that our hallways are overwhelmed with people. Social distancing is being practiced; perhaps there could be an improvement on face mask usage, especially in the admin building. But we can encourage our elected officials and department heads to be more firm in that regard,” he said. “I guess, Suzie, I’m not sure what we’re gaining by this other than adding additional work for our staff, because the public will still have access, we’re just changing the methodology.”
Weirick said the concerns she’s heard are that face coverings aren’t being used everywhere in common areas, neither by the public nor by staff. She hopes new rules, potentially with enforcement measures, would call attention to the need to wear masks in public and encourage people to do business other ways than in-person.
“I think that’s the greater message, on top of giving people the big heads-up, ‘Hey if you’ve got something to take care of in the county, do your best to do it remotely, especially as we continue to work through this and mitigate the spread,’” she said. “We did this early, when the counts of positivity were not high, nor were hospitalizations. Now we are at a situation that’s dire. ... We have the public in our building, we have employees in our building, even in the hall, that aren’t wearing face coverings. Clearly this is something that we need to address, as uncomfortable as it is, as unfortunate as it is and as inconvenient as it is.”
Board members agreed to share a draft of the resolution with department heads and other elected officials to get input before putting it to a vote. Yoder said they could call an emergency meeting if they need to pass something before next Monday.
The previous restrictions on public access to county buildings were enacted in early May, after a few county employees tested positive for COVID-19. The buildings were closed until a plan could be made to reopen with safety measures in place.
By mid-May, the commissioners adopted a resolution that laid out the safety measures that must be followed as county buildings reopened to the public. Reflecting the understanding at the time of how COVID-19 spread, it focused largely on hand-washing, sanitizing surfaces and staying 6 feet apart, but it didn’t require the public or employees to wear face masks except as an alternative to separation.
The plan also urged the public to handle their business by phone or email whenever possible, and to schedule necessary face-to-face meetings by appointment to reduce the number of people in a building at the same time.
At the time, the infection numbers in the county were only a fraction of what they are now. The current death total and high number of hospitalizations were also yet to come.
The commissioners passed another resolution in June endorsing a face mask recommendation that was given by the county health department. Yoder said at the time that it was meant to clarify when a mask was or wasn’t needed.
The health officer’s recommendation became a mandate by the end of June, followed weeks later by a mask mandate at the state level.
Most county board meetings also began taking place virtually in spring. The practice eventually trailed off for the commissioners and Elkhart County Council, but both have resumed holding meetings online this month.
Council members all attended their meeting in person Saturday, though they sat about two arms lengths apart and a few wore masks. They took public comments only through online video.
All three commissioners attended Monday’s meeting virtually, though the meeting room in the county administration building was open to the public.