The Dallas County Board of Supervisors will presumably decide this week when to reopen county offices and what restrictions to impose on county employees and the public.
The three-man board took up the question during last Tuesday’s regular meeting, taking input from the county public health director, county attorney and several elected officeholders and heads of departments.
“It’s time for us to consider what our policies and procedures are going to be going forward,” said Dallas County Supervisor Kim Chapman in opening the workshop. Chapman currently chairs to board.
Suzanne Hegarty, director of the Dallas County Public Health Department, was asked whether the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH) will be offering recommendations for reopening public offices.
“I have not seen anything specific for governmental entities to come from either the governor’s office or the state department of health at this time,” Hegarty said.
The Polk County Board of Supervisors decided last week to extend the pandemic-related closure of Polk County offices through July 1. The city of Des Moines’ public offices are closed through June 15, and the city recently extended its freeze on permits for public events and activities until July 1. The city of Perry plans to reopen its facilities July 1.
Dallas County Attorney Chuck Sinnard said the Iowa Supreme Court, as the leaders of the state’s judiciary, will determine how and when the court system resumes its full functions. He said judges in the Fifth Judicial District are also looking to the supervisors for direction.
“A task force has been formed by the state judiciary,” Sinnard said, “that is going to make recommendations to the supreme court about procedures going forward with the return of the public, but the local judges here were certainly looking to take direction from the county and perhaps even pass on the recommendations that we make here to that advisory board to the supreme court.”
Sinnard said the state supreme court has set June 1 as the provisional date for resuming non-jury trials, commonly heard for misdemeanor crimes, minor traffic violations and other civil offenses. Non-jury trials bring a large number of people into state and county courthouses, he said. Jury trials could resume July 13.
“One of the issues that we’re anticipating is people concerned about serving on juries,” Sinnard said, particularly with social-distancing recommendations in force. “There’s been some discussion in my office and in the judiciary not only about utilizing the courthouse but, with bigger trials which would require a larger number of jurors, perhaps seeking out other accommodations that will permit social distancing, such as a gymnasium at local schools or something like that.”
Three of the four floors in the Dallas County Courthouse are now given over to court functions. Only the ground floor houses non-court offices — the Dallas County Treasurer and the Dallas County Recorder. Treasurer Mitch Hambleton told the supervisors Tuesday his office is prepared to go to an appointment-only method for processing motor vehicle registrations and title transfers.
“My office has been closed now for six or seven weeks,” Hambleton said, “and at an average title activity of 70 to 80 per week, then we’ve got quite a bit of pent-up demand that’s awaiting us once we’re able to open our doors.”
He said his staff would “kind of fly by the seat of our pants initially” in working off the backlog. “It’s not odd to have had 30 or 40 people waiting in the central corridor of the first floor. Coming out of this pandemic, that’s not an option that we have.”
Hambleton said he is beefing up his office’s Qmatic queuing system with an online appointment-setting function.
“We’re looking to going toward an appointment-only service and really trying to push people toward technologies to make the best use of my employees’ time,” he said, “and with that technology then, they can be waiting out in their car until we’re ready to see them instead of coming into the courthouse.”
The question of anti-virus precautions, such as face masks and temperatures scans, was raised repeatedly during the course of the 40-minute discussion. Dallas County Human Resources Director Beth Deardorff said the county can legally require employees to wear face masks or submit to temperature checks, but she asked how far the county’s authority for public health extends toward members of the general public with business at county facilities.
“When we open, can we require the public to wear masks to enter our buildings?” Deardorff said. “And if we require it, do we have to then provide them to the public? Whether we let people come in our building or not, we need to not only protect our employees but also the public. We’re not a private entity, so that’s why I was asking about the requirements around that, if that’s even feasible and even if we were able to get our hands on enough masks to provide them to the public. It’s just things that we need to think about that I would recommend.”
According to IDPH data, 3,510 of Dallas County’s estimated 93,000 residents have been tested for the novel coronavirus as of May 17, and 776 positive tests have been reported, a 22.1% infection rate. Eleven Dallas County residents have died of COVID-19. In Polk County, 15,312 tests have yielded 2,922 positive cases among its estimated 490,000 residents, a 19.1% rate of infection. There have been 79 deaths in Polk County.
Sinnard said that in his opinion the county has the legal authority to require the public to wear face masks, and the authority can be derived from two sources: the governor’s State of Public Health Disaster Emergency Proclamation of March 9 and the rights inherent in property ownership generally, the “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service” argument.
“I think there’s different ways to view that authority,” Sinnard said. “One is time and place restrictions for the physical premises that we administer. So we have dates and times that county offices are open. There’s other restrictions upon entering. Certain people can’t go past a certain door in my office because of the nature of the business that we conduct in there. It’s restricted from public access. All of those things just naturally flow from the authority of an owner’s right to that specific piece of property. The other way to look at it is these more specific restrictions are derived from a public health emergency and a disaster declaration, such as the governor’s proclamation that there is a pandemic emergency. So executive authority gives the governor the power to suspend certain provisions of the law and put in place other restrictions because of that disaster declaration. My understanding in reviewing this early on, when the matter first came up, is that also extends somewhat to the state department of public health and then that can also extend down to the local board of health as well.”
Sinnard said his opinion was provisional and that he wanted to pursue further research of the question prior to the board’s May 19 meeting.
“I could be wrong,” he said, “and it’s going to require further research. It is certainly a gray area, not only at the local scale but the discussion statewide and even nationwide over the authority to do that. I’m leaning toward that at the moment, that we would have some authority to require that, much in the sense that we can restrict somebody from coming in without adequate apparel on into a building even though it’s a public building. That’s what I’m going off of at this point. As I said, it could be wrong upon my doing further research or consulting with other officials in state and local government, but that’s my opinion at this point.”
Chapman thanked his county colleagues for their information and opinions and expressed his hope for a safe and smooth reopening of the county’s offices even in the face of uncertainty, a sentiment generally shared among the attendees.
“How are we going to manage?” Hambleton asked rhetorically. “The best we can.”