County closes most public venues, courthouse open

  • Wayne Knuckles/The Clayton Tribune County commissioners Will Nichols, left, and Kent Woerner at Friday’s emergency meeting of the Rabun County Board of Commissioners.
    Wayne Knuckles/The Clayton Tribune County commissioners Will Nichols, left, and Kent Woerner at Friday’s emergency meeting of the Rabun County Board of Commissioners.
Body

CLAYTON— Meeting in emergency session Friday, March 13, the Rabun County Board of Commissioners agreed to cancel public events at all county venues and halt some services due to COVID-19 concerns.

Department heads from different areas of public service attended the meeting and gave updates on policy and procedures that have been put in place.

Beginning at the close of business last Friday, the Rabun County Senior Center closed, as well as the County Recreation Department, the Rabun County Arena and the Rabun County Library.

However, the Meals on Wheels program and county transportation services continue.

The library is providing curb-side service to patrons and their wifi service can be accessed from the library parking lot, said Caroline Frick, library manager.

Separately, Mountain Judicial Circuit Attorney George Christian said last Friday that all criminal and civil court activities are closed.

The courthouse and county offices remain open for now.

The Georgia presidential primary has been pushed back from March 24 to May 19, according to a press release from Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office. This was due to concern for the safety of voters and poll workers amid the spread of COVID-19.

Georgians who have already cast ballots in the early voting period will not need to vote again for the May 19 primary. Those who cast ballots early will still have their vote counted, Raffensperger stressed.

Greg James, chairman of the Rabun County Board of Commissioners, began last Friday’s emergency session by explaining that although COVID-19 is a tough issue to deal with, they were elected to handle difficult situations such as this.  

“That’s what we were elected for,” James said. He said the safety of people and employees is a priority.

Commissioners and department heads debated about which services to suspend amidst the pandemic.

 Plan of action

Mike Mazarky, director of Rabun County Emergency Management (EMA), said at the meeting that they are working with public health officials and local public offices as one response to the pandemic.  

He said that Public Health is the lead agency on this and that EMA is assisting them.

“The problem is that we don’t have a benchmark,” James said about having to manifest a plan and not having any situation like this in the past to compare to.

“It’s just going to be a moving target, no question,” James said about potential county reaction to the COVID-19 threat.

James suggested “going down to essential services” but there were questions about what exactly that meant as far as services like the Rabun Transit.

While it was suggested to close down the Rabun Senior Center, Wanda Henry, director of the Senior Center, said that the transit system either had to remain open to everyone or closed to everyone.

Henry explained that they legally cannot decide what is deemed essential and non-essential when it comes to transporting patients.  

She said that a patient could use the transit system for something as simple as going to Walmart to pick up a prescription.

Mike Carnes, Rabun County E911 director, said that having the transit system going takes some of the non-emergency calls and visits off of Emergency Medical Services (EMS).

“It’s a big benefit to EMS,” Carnes said.

It was decided that the Rabun Transit and Meals on Wheels would continue, but that the Rabun Senior Center would close.

Meals on Wheels is an important service that many residents depend on and needs to continue running, it was decided.

Commissioner Scott Crane talked about the school system’s plan to feed every child meals so they will have food while schools are closed.

 Available resources

 Mazarky said that since President Trump declared a national emergency, funding from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) would be available.

“[It’s] just more resources available to us,” Mazarky said.

Darrin Giles, county administrator, said that all events scheduled at the Civic Center for the foreseeable future are cancelled.

“We can’t just cherry pick,” said Stephen Arbitter, commissioner, about suspending as a whole all events that are scheduled, rather than picking and choosing which to cancel.

Annie Williams, of Rabun County Event Venues, said that the Malpass Brothers performance was one of the cancelled events. It sold 450-500 tickets, she explained.

Cheryl Harbin, nurse manager for the clinic at the Rabun County Health Department, gave information on what they are doing to screen people for COVID-19.

She said that as of Friday, the health department did not have the ability to test for COVID-19.

The testing is a 72-hour process and people are self-quarantining themselves to limit the spread, Harbin said.

One commissioner asked the department heads if they have enough cleaning supplies.

Carnes said that currently they do have enough masks, gowns and cleaning supplies for the ambulances, although, this could change depending on how long the pandemic continues.

Crane said that department heads should not be buying these supplies out of their own pockets, and that departments should let commissioners know what supplies they need and they will be provided.

“Whatever we need to keep the public safe,” Crane said. “That we provide you with what you need.”

It was also brought up about whether the recycling centers should be closed, but Crane said that it probably wasn’t necessary because you generally aren’t touching other people’s items. He said for the people working at the recycling center to just limit contact with people.

 Closures

Commissioners also discussed shutting down the Rabun County Recreation Department.

Adam Dixon, athletic director, said that it would be good to shut it down it to the public.

He said the gate at the entrance would be shut so people could not enter.

“I think we’d look really foolish if we stay open as usual,” Dixon said. “I think being proactive is definitely the way to go.”

James said that it made sense to go ahead and shut the recreation department down.

Dixon said it would give them time to clean the facility as well.

Sheriff Chad Nichols said that they are taking precautions at the Rabun County Detention Center to prevent a potential outbreak.

He said that inmates are being pre-screened prior to being booked into the facility and being taken to the hospital if needed to have them medically cleared.

Nichols said that visitation has been suspended as well as the outside work detail.

A commissioner asked if there was a plan in place to isolate inmates if needed.

Nichols said that “we have got a plan to move people around” if needed.

A decision about whether or not to close the library was debated thoroughly, with the pros and cons being discussed.

“I think we need to keep the library open,” Crane said. He said that some students would need to utilize it to complete assignments while school is out.

He said he does not want to get rid of any place where students can do work, and some students do not have access to internet at home.

It was decided that the library would close but that people could utilize the wifi from the parking lot.

Caroline Frick, library manager, said that they would have “curb-side” service so people can still check out books. The books would be delivered outside at their vehicle.

Frick said that the closure would give library staff the opportunity to thoroughly clean the building.

 Final decision to close

 Commissioner Will Nichols said that it might be wise to hear from the public about what they think about these closures.

“We’re talking about something that affects a lot of folks,” Nichols said.

An attendee noted that commissioners were elected to make decisions on behalf of people in the community, so they should make this decision without needing a public forum.

“I’d rather err on the side of caution,” James said about the decision to cancel some services and public events.

“I would too,” said Commissioner Kent Woerner.

Before adjourning, commissioners asked department heads to come up with emergency plans within their departments and there would be a meeting the following week to re-evaluate the situation.