Monday, March 16th, 2020

COVID-19: Essentials for Your Unit of Government

  • No Need to Reinvent the Wheel—Policies and Procedures Are Available

Utilize the resources that others have been diligently working to create. For a COVID-19 operational policy, consider the policy implemented by the City of McHenry.

For a COVID-19 Personnel Policy, consider the policy implemented by the Village of Carpentersville.

For public safety employees, consider the Village of Lake in the Hills Police Department’s orders to officers to minimize unnecessary contact with the public and to ensure sanitary work conditions.

The Illinois Municipal League is also actively monitoring the situation and providing relevant information.

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  • Prioritize Sanitation and Social Distancing in the Workplace

While advice to combat the spread of COVID-19 will continue to evolve as we learn more, minimizing the risk of contagion to those who are in the workplace is important now.  Ensure that employees are advised:

  1. 1. to keep a 6’ distance from others at all time;
  2. 2. to wash hands and to use hand sanitizers, which should be readily available;
  3. 3. to follow a protocol for properly disinfecting shared spaces and common areas;
  4. 4. to use disposable gloves when handling documents, bills, checks, or other items.
  5. 5. to avoid touching their faces.

  • Consider Postponing Public Activities and Events

With the President of the United States and the Governor of the State of Illinois having declared a state of emergency, a major priority is minimizing the risk of mass contagion at group activities. If your community has group activities, recreation programming, or other non-essential events scheduled, consider postponing or cancelling them. At this point, Illinois restaurants and bars are not open for anything other than roadside or drive-through through March 30. At a minimum, consider that date to be a provisional time frame to postpone non-essential activities. The Governor’s Executive Order also has banned public and private gatherings of 50 or more people. For additional reference, the Center for Disease Control just lowered its recommended prohibition on most group gatherings from 250 people down to 50 people, for the next 8 weeks.

For regularly scheduled government Council, Board, Committee and Commission meetings, consider whether they are necessary. Unless there is a major time-sensitive issue, Committee and Commission meetings can be cancelled or postponed.

As for City Council and Board meetings, there may be bills to pay or other time-sensitive deadlines, which require meetings to occur. Still, consider ways to minimize the need for public meetings, such as if meetings can be consolidated from twice a month to once a month and/or eliminating committee of the whole meetings.

Please note that the Governor’s Executive Order has also suspended the Open Meetings Act requirements that a public body must physically meet to conduct a meeting and otherwise restricting remote attendance.

If meetings must occur, consider promoting if members of the public can listen to the meetings without being in person, such as through audio or video recording. There is also no requirement that all members of the Board or Council must sit directly next to each other on a dais, so spread everyone out to maintain the 6’ distance.

  • Develop an HR Protocol to Address Employee Absences

Pending federal legislation, if passed, would require all government employers to pay employees for up to two weeks to address illness or quarantine related to COVID-19, as well as provisions for paying employees 2/3 of their compensation if they are caring for a family member with COVID-19.

Beyond that, consider adopting specific personnel policies that minimize further risk to other employees and the public. This should include, at a minimum, requiring employees with flu-like symptoms to not report to work and exempting them from discipline for not reporting to work, requiring quarantine from work if an employee comes into contact with a person with COVID-19, as well as determining how to reasonably address the point at which such employees should be able to return to work.

Other considerations include isolating certain employees and implementing staggered shifts and ensuring thorough sanitation is done between shifts, so that even if a member of one shift becomes infected, which might necessitate quarantining every other person on that shift, there are still available employees to perform functions.

A sample policy from the Village of Carpentersville is available.

  • Identify Whether and How the Public Can Safely Interact with Staff to Pay Bills, Obtain Permits, Etc.

Consider if there is a way for staff to interact with members of the public, without undue risk of exposure to contagion for every day matters, such as bill payments, requesting permits, Code inspections, etc.

At a minimum, promote use of online and other remote access options for regular transactions. Several communities are temporarily shutting down customer service counters and suspending any adverse action for late payment, such as late penalties or shut off of services. By contrast, some communities are still operating counters behind windows and advising staff to utilize gloves and sanitation supplies. What is best for your community is your decision, just identify that you are protecting your employees.

  • Minimize Police and Fire Contact with the Public and Provide Protective Gear

First and foremost, ensure that your public safety employees are provided Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), as recommended by the Center for Disease Control. The PPE is to be used with any police or fire encounter with a member of the public.

Also, several law enforcement agencies are implementing other means to minimize potential exposure to contagion, including confirming whether a 911 call for medical assistance requires police presence, directing police officers to not effectuate contact with individuals observed to commit minor non-violent offenses, such as petty traffic offenses, avoiding entry into houses and businesses where not necessary, and ensuring public safety employees are trained to utilize the PPE any time they must come into close contact with individuals.

  • Utilize Your Website and Social Media to Share Certified Public Messaging from Agencies and State and Federal Government

The public may want information from your government as to how to address the pandemic. Again, you do not need to reinvent the wheel. There are a lot of agencies providing consistent and authoritative messaging on the subject. The Village of Lake in the Hills has provided a web page with links to several agencies, such as the Center for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, and the local Department of Public Health.

  • Ensure Operational Continuity and Spending Authority

Review your local government’s Code and other procedures to ensure that sufficient authority exists for emergency spending and contracting. If your government, for any reason, is not able to convene a Council or Board meeting to authorize expenditures, emergency or otherwise, a provision should allow for emergency spending. Consult with an attorney before implementing any procedure to ensure it is consistent with statutory authority for your unit of local government.

Similarly, consider protocols to mitigate the risk of having an entire department of employees unable to work, and consider having reciprocal aid agreements with other units of government for essential public services. For example, if a police officer tests positive for COVID-19, are there staffing and sanitation protocols that will ensure the entire police department need not be subject to quarantine? Also, does your unit of government have redundancies for water and wastewater certifications in order to operate or a reciprocal service agreement with another water department, if you only have one or two individuals with certifications?

  • Stay Calm, Stay Informed, but Don’t Panic

Yes, this is uncharted territory without direct modern precedent. The latest news and medical responses to COVID-19 will remain dynamic for some time to come. However, it is your job to mitigate the risk and ensure procedures address all foreseeable scenarios. Stay alert to new developments, implement policies in a way that you believe best protect your community and your employees, and otherwise buckle up.

If you are reading this article, it is most likely because you have been elected or appointed to a position of leadership in your community. Leadership is tested during a crisis. Consider that the way you and your unit of government respond and act during this pandemic will establish your leadership credentials.  We will do our best to support your efforts in the coming weeks.