Ellis County has closed the Ellis County Fairgrounds to all activities, including races at RPM Speedway.
For now the county will keep its office hours the same at the Ellis County Administrative Center, 718 Main, but the Ellis County Commission is asking people to do as much business as possible over the phone or online, or to call ahead and make appointments.
“I currently hold the opinion that anything short of a quarantine for the county or a shelter in place that we should be trying to maintain hours of operation,” said Ellis County Commission chairman Butch Schlyer.
The county’s three commissioners met Friday afternoon at the administrative center to discuss county operations under the rapidly evolving coronavirus situation. About two dozen people attending, many of them county employees, commented on how changes would affect their departments at the administrative center.
So far in Ellis County three people have been tested for COVID-19, and two of the test results have come back negative. Ellis County Health Department director Jason Kennedy said Friday he is still waiting to hear results on the third person, who was tested Thursday evening. Kennedy told the commissioners he was not recommending the closing of county offices right now.
“I’ve been hearing from citizens from the private sector who almost demand that we remain open,” Schlyer said.
“I agree with that,” said Commissioner Dustin Roths. “We’re a critical infrastructure to the people and we need to keep our operation as usual until we have any kind of reason to believe that our employees are at a greater risk.”
“I guess my opinion’s just a little different,” said Commissioner Dean Haselhorst, noting that the treasurer’s office earlier in the week already had gone to making appointments, which limits the number of people at one time in the two-story office building.
“I’ve used that service twice now, and it actually worked out pretty good because there’s no waiting lines. You didn’t have to take a number and sit there,” Haselhorst said. “I think the call-in thing is a good thing right now. We’re still open to the public, we’re not locking the doors, but we don’t have a crowd of 10 people walk in at one time to renew their tags.”
Haselhorst said he has also been hearing from businesses who are concerned.
“I’ve had numerous bankers call me worried we’re locking the doors, because with everybody refinancing we’re going to have people in,” he said. “I’ve assured them we’re not doing that, but I said it may go to a call-in and make an appointment.”
Public works director Bill Ring said the only facility where that would be a concern would be the Ellis County Landfill. They’re looking at making the front window there a walk-up window.
“We put the new credit card system in,” Ring said. “That would at least get rid of some of the face-to-face contact.”
Appraiser Lisa Ree said call-in appointments wouldn’t be a problem for her office because they don’t have a lot of foot traffic this time of year.
“When we mail out our valuation notices on April 1, it increases somewhat, but that’s because of informal hearings, protests on value, and we create appointments then already,” Ree said. “A lot on that is phone, to set up a hearing. And if it comes to it, we could do our informal hearings over the phone.”
County Clerk Donna Maskus wants to see her office stay open as election season is getting into full swing. That starts now with a mail-in ballot going out to every registered voter, asking whether the county should levy two quarter-cent sales taxes to cover a critical shortfall of revenue, despite deep cuts the past few years to the county’s budget.
“Ballots probably will go out today, in the mail,” Maskus said, adding that while voter registration has closed for now, that there are still candidate filing deadlines open.
Some other operations at her office will change, however, despite remaining open.
“I received notice from the United States passport agency and they are not processing passports unless they are emergency,” Maskus said. “My staff has been very concerned with that, one day this week they processed eight passports, another day it was like six. I know today we had one for sure.”
As a result, her office will no longer process passports until the federal government resumes doing so, she said.
The county’s activity buildings at the fairgrounds, normally available for rent to the public for everything from wedding events to meetings, are closed for now, said interim county administrator, emergency manager and Fire Chief Darin Myers, referencing Gov. Laura Kelly’s order banning gatherings of more than 50 people.
“Those do fall under the governor’s executive order,” Myers said. “We have canceled all the receptions, meetings, banquets and such at the Schenk and Unrein buildings,” he said, “as well as all the races at the RPM Speedway. I believe at this point they’ve only postponed one race, but they’re keeping on a weekly update for the rest of the others.”
As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases continues to grow in Kansas, he said the situation will be fluid and dynamic.
“We’ll keep the commission aware of what’s going on,” Myers said.
Kennedy said he will continue to be diligent, monitoring guidance from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others.
“If we see changes that come down from KDHE, CDC, governor’s office, state or federal levels, or if we see widespread community transmission, then it would be time, per our preparedness plan, to change our stance,” he told the commissioners.
KDHE has changed its guidelines and no longer tells him when people are under investigation for exposure to someone who might have the virus. He’s notified of confirmed cases.
The commissioners also confirmed that county employees, if they’re sent home because of COVID-19, get paid time off in line with the new law passed Wednesday by Congress, the Family First Coronavirus Response Act.
They cannot be forced to use paid time off, Myers said, when the act goes into place in early April.
“We need to keep our employees paid if for some reason we have an outbreak in Ellis County. I hope we don’t, but if we do, we need to keep our employees. If we send them home for two weeks, we need to pay them,” Haselhorst said.