With James City County having one of the highest cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) in the state, the Board of Supervisors convened a special meeting Tuesday to sort things out and address the growing concerns in the county.
Fire Chief Ryan Ashe spoke about local efforts to prevent and contain the spread of the virus.
Ashe said while there are currently a number of confirmed cases in the county, that number will continue to grow as more testing is done.
Peninsula localities came together Sunday to form a regional operation center out of Newport News that would connect leaders from various regional emergency management departments and from the Virginia Department of Health to coordinate regional efforts.
Having a regional operation center would also help rotate staff from different localities and better share information directly from VDH to various localities.
While the center is still in the process of getting organized, Ashe said there are members of the team that have run emergency operations centers during disasters such as Hurricane Florence and have brought that experience to help the area.
Some supervisors expressed concern for how information was being disseminated from VDH to local administration. Supervisor Ruth Larson specifically expressed concern on how information was received by VDH and then relayed to Williamsburg-James City County in regards to a volunteer at Matthew Whaley Elementary School who tested presumptive positive for the virus.
“Moving forward, I do think we have to take this as lessons learned,” she said. “We are obviously ill equipped as a county…I don’t know if we didn’t expect this, I certainly didn’t. I didn’t think about the fact that JCC has a lot of residents who are older [and] affluent and traveling, so I didn’t expect it to come so fast to this county.”
County Administrator Scott Stevens said the information flow isn’t great at this point but hopefully will be getting better. He said locals have been contacted by VDH but the department hasn’t made administrators aware of the contact. As a result, administrators have spent days having to dispel rumors.
Ashe said hopefully as procedures become more stable, information will be relayed to administrators and public officials through a more streamlined process.
There were also concerns about how numbers and data on testing would be reported as some testing is outsourced to private labs. Testing done through the state lab is reported back to VDH, but if health professionals are sending tests to private labs such as LabCorp and Quest, then the test results are sent to the requesting doctor and protected under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
Latara Rouse, communications manager for the county, said James City County is trying to provide a range of options to get information out to the public. The county recently has created a number (757-564-2410) where residents can hear a 10-minute recording with information and resources about the coronavirus.
For residents who want to contact the county’s public information office directly, they can call 757-272-3337.
There will also be daily advisories sent to the public with updated information as well as a location on the county’s website where residents can find information.
James City County has also assembled an emergency public information officer team that will work with other localities to gather and spread accurate information as well as updating the county’s television station and monitoring social media and news.
Stevens also addressed how the closures and changes to daily operations will impact the local economy.
James City County is projecting a $2 million to $3 million loss in revenue as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. However, he said the county is in a good place for the next couple of months because there is a $31.6 million fund balance that will help mitigate the impact.
He added that the county is also holding expenditures and reassessing spending in in their departments to reconsider budgets for only necessary spending. Any large future projects the county had been preparing for will most likely be pushed back.
Stevens said there is also an effort to collect information on loss of revenue for local businesses so that if there is federal assistance that becomes available, then information on the amount needed will already be prepared.
Supervisors mentioned the amount of questions they had received about waiving convenience fees for online payments since residents no longer have access to pay their bills in person.
“I think it’s important that we’re saying don’t come here but also if you don’t come here, it’s going to cost you money,” Larson said.
Stevens said waiving those fees would result in an estimated $150,000 loss of revenue for the county.
“We’ll still collect the amount of money we’re collecting, we’ll just have a $150,000 expenditure to the credit card companies that we have to figure out so we lose that revenue,” Stevens said.
Supervisors approved to waive the fees through the end of June, but Sharon Day, financial and management services director for the county, said the waiver could take some time to implement as the Information Technology Department works with the various vendors.
Stevens also addressed how county employees will be paid during this time.
Stevens said the county has committed to paying all of its full time staff and are using their staff to its capacity. For example, some staff from the James City County Recreation Center have been moved to help at the county’s convenience centers which remain open.
“Our goal is to keep our staff earning their paycheck but doing so in a safe manner,” he said.
However, Stevens said the group he worries about the most is those who work part-time. He said there have been no decisions on how or if part-time staff will be paid and that there may be more opportunities for some part-time staff to continue working than others.
Supervisors also expressed concern for shutting down too many services, such as the Williamsburg Area Transit Authority, that might impact how people can access certain services or still perform their jobs
“We can’t close everything down,” said Supervisor Michael Hipple. “There’s a lot of people that rely on services and keep the county moving forward.”
Rebecca Vinroot, director of social services, said many people rely on wages that would require them to go out of the home.
Vinroot added that essential social services will remain open and employees will continue doing their duties to make sure residents have necessary resources, such as SNAP benefits.
The county’s Social Services Department is continuing to work with local community partners to provide sources for food distribution and continuing care for seniors in the community.
The Board of Supervisors still plan to meet for a work session on March 24, but that could change or move to a teleconference platform.
For more information, visit James City County online.
Here’s the county’s coronavirus information page.
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