County courthouse may crack its door next month

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

The Dickinson County Courthouse may ease some of its COVID-19 visitor restrictions as of June 3.

Dickinson County Supervisor Chairman Bill Leupold said the date is only a target and will depend heavily on how local spread of the virus plays out in the coming weeks. All six of the county's confirmed cases had recovered as of May 12, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health. The courthouse was closed to the public nearly two months ago, and the board on April 28 approved a dateless, three-phase plan to reopen the courthouse during their meeting. The June 3 target date would potentially mark the beginning of the plan's first phase.

Leupold said the courthouse could have potentially set the first phase's target date for May 20 the virus has a two week incubation period, and May 20 falls two weeks after the county's final recovery but officials felt it was better to wait until after the June 2 primary election in order to reduce the number of people entering the courthouse.

"We've given the department heads leeway as to when they call their at-home workers back to the courthouse," Leupold said. "If they need to take a week to do that, that's fine. If they need only two days, that's fine."

Dickinson County Emergency Management Coordinator Mike Ehret previously said the plan's first phase will involve protective equipment like gloves, masks and countertop shields for the courthouse offices. The use of masks will be at the discretion of each department, according to Ehret, but the supplies will be as uniform as possible throughout the building. Even with the phase-one measures, the public will still be strongly encouraged to conduct county business by remote means whenever possible, and county officials have also reminded the public of a document dropbox near the building's west entrance.

If and when the first phase is launched, the county expects visitors to enter the courthouse by appointment, have their temperature checked at the door and be escorted for the duration of their visit. Ehret said only a single visitor will be allowed in the courthouse during phase one, with the exception of minors conducting business at the Dickinson County Drivers License station.

A fair amount of the discussion among the supervisors board Tuesday centered on whether the courthouse should be closed off again if the county's cases rise or a courthouse staff member should contract COVID-19. Previous discussions noted much of the Lakes Area's summer visitors are already arriving for the season.

Supervisor Steve Clark said it seemed radical to consider a second courthouse closure, but he admitted it was difficult to find a balance between safety and function.

"I hate to say what the number would be, but we can't jump scared at one person coming down with it, because we'll have no idea where they've been in the meantime or, if they open the state back up, who they've been in contact with," Clark said. "It's a really tough call. Just one case is so indeterminate. It could be just an aberration, or it could be the start of something."

Supervisor Tim Fairchild said he believes the key moving forward will be flexibility, rather than strict adherence to particular numbers or dates.

"I think that successful governments in this situation are going to be fluid governments people who can move quickly, adapt and not hold any predetermined ideas on how to deal with this," Fairchild said.

He agreed a single internal case shouldn't merit a renewed courthouse closure, adding the workers and the public will likely have be exposed elsewhere in the community if the virus is widespread.

"Respect is utmost at this point," Fairchild said. "There is no room for fear. We have to face facts on this thing. We have to remain fluid. Look how much we've learned about COVID in the last two months that we didn't know before."

If the courthouse plan moves to its second phase, the building's west entrance will be opened, and each visitor's temperature will be taken. Multiple visitors may enter the courthouse together, but social distancing and other mitigation practices will still be in place. The plan's third phase would lift all restrictions and return operations to what they were before the mid-March lockdown. Ehret previously said he doubts the third phase is likely to begin this calendar year.

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