By RUSSELL TURNER
Two county employees tested positive for the coronavirus last week prompting a temporary closure of the Greene County Tax Assessor / Collector’s office and forcing county supervisors to set a new employee policy for dealing with Covid-19 issues.
The tax assessor’s office was shuttered last week after two employees tested positive for coronavirus. An employee who was not feeling well tested positive on Wednesday prompting Tax Assessor/Collector Mark Holder and the other tax office employees to be tested. Holder told county supervisors on Monday that one other employee tested positive for the virus, while he and another employee were negative for the virus. A fifth employee did not take the test and was opting to self-quarantine for two weeks prior to returning to work.
The positive tests forced Holder to temporarily close the office through Friday. An outside contractor was brought in to disinfect the building and on Monday morning Holder reopened for business, but kept the door locked and was encouraging taxpayers to utilize the postal service, the office’s website and the building’s drop box to handle their business.
Holder said he was told by members of the county board of supervisors that the office had to be fully reopened to the public on Monday. He said he was uncomfortable with the decision and asked Board of Supervisors President G.L. Dearman to call a meeting in hopes that a policy could be put in place to give him and other county elected officials clear guidance on how to handle positive Covid-19 tests and exposures in their offices and what county employees should expect if they test positive or have concerns over their safety at work.
Supervisors met on the issue in a special called meeting Monday afternoon. Attorney Paul Walley, who has been serving as legal counsel for the board, was in attendance, along with Holder and Circuit Clerk Cecelia Bounds.
Walley told those in attendance he had difficulty getting clear guidance from state officials and was repeatedly referred to the Center for Disease Control’s guidelines for the Covid-19 pandemic. He had copies of some of those guidelines available for supervisors at the meeting.
Holder told supervisors that with half of his staff out of the office for at least two weeks it was going to be a struggle to keep up with the workload. Adding that to the concerns he had about the safety of the remainder of his staff and the general public made him feel it was best to lock the door and try to do business by phone, internet or the drop box. He said he had talked to officials with the Department of Revenue about the situation and was told the steps he was taking meant the office was considered as being ‘open’.
Holder said if supervisors disagreed, they needed to establish a policy outlining how county offices were supposed to handle this type of scenario.
“What policies or procedures do we have in place for the flu each year,” Dist. Four Supervisors Wayne Barrow asked. “The flu kills thousands of people each year and that isn’t considered a pandemic.”
Holder said he thought there was a big difference between the flu and the current Covid-19 scenario and said maybe the board should get input from medical professionals, since he or none of the board members were experts on the matter.
Supervisor Dearman said the board had went beyond the recommended guidelines and had the building cleaned and disinfected. A lengthy discussion followed over whether the building had been cleaned properly with Holder saying it was clear the building it had not been. Supervisor Dearman clarified that the building had been fumigated with disinfectant by professionals and that was adequate. Holder and Dist. Two Supervisor Elton Clark said they read the guidelines differently and that all surfaces in the building should have been properly cleaned prior to it being disinfected.
Moving on, Dearman told Holder he felt there was a clear understanding the office should have reopened fully on Monday.
“This is definitely a critical and essential service for the people of this county, especially this time of year, just before the tax sale,” Supervisor Dearman said. “Being open by (drop) box may be good, may be acceptable at times, but there are a lot of folks that don’t have a check to attach to it and need to come in and pay cash.”
“I think the general thinking was that once the building was cleaned that anybody (employees) that didn’t test positive could come back to work immediately today.”
At that point, the direction of the meeting changed, as Holder told supervisors once again if that was the policy they wanted to enact for county employees and county offices, they should do that. However, he wondered what supervisors would suggest when employees didn’t feel safe and didn’t come into work.
“I am concerned if I told them, like Mr. G.L. said for them to be back Monday morning, that I make sure they have masks to wear and that we meet all the guidelines,” Holder said. “If we are considered a critical infrastructure workplace and (employees) have been exposed (to the virus), then the CDC guidelines say that we have to take some precautions.”
Walley said that while the law is clear that public offices such as the tax accessor’s are required to be open, the board could consider policies that would limit the number of patrons that have to be served in person, and set guidelines for how best to accommodate those situations.
Several minutes of discussion about CDC guidelines for employees who have tested positive and what standards must be met before they should return to work followed. In the end, no vote was taken to force Holder to reopen his office or to give him the board’s blessing for keeping the lobby area closed. As of Thursday afternoon, the lobby remained closed. A voice message on the office’s phone system said the anticipated reopening with a full staff is on or before July 28.
Supervisor Barrow, however, did move to clarify what will be expected of county employees. He offered a motion that stated any employee that has a reason to be tested and either has a negative test or refuses to have the test, but shows no symptoms of the virus can either report to work on schedule or not be compensated. Employees that test positive for the virus will be expected to remain away from work on paid leave during the required quarantine time.
The motion passed unanimously. After the vote, Walley clarified that if the employee wishes to remain away from work past the 14-day quarantine period, then the department head could recommend that the employee be terminated.
The conversation then turned back to the matter of cleaning the office with Holder asking if supervisors would be willing to get the county janitorial staff to do additional cleaning at the office. Dearman replied that as far as he was concerned the office was ready to be reopened as it was.
“As far as I know these folks are professionals that we hired and they fogged the building and said it killed everything in there.”
Clark said the guidelines appeared to support the need for additional cleaning, but Barrow questioned what amount of cleaning would be good enough.
“My understanding is that the office has been (disinfected) according to regulation and if that is not good enough for you then get you some Lysol, Clorox or whatever you have to and get to cleaning.”
The meeting was adjourned shortly afterward, but the fireworks were not over. Dearman, Barrow and Dist. Three Supervisor Danny Smith had paused at the board table and were continuing a conversation that apparently still dealt with employees of county offices. It was unclear exactly what all was said, but at the end of the conversation Dearman could be heard saying “We can’t tell them what to do Danny, but we can cut their money off.”
It isn’t exactly clear what Dearman was referring to, but the comment did not sit well with Holder.
“That’s right G.L., you can cut our money off,” Holder said loudly. “If that’s the way you want to do it, cut it off. Cut it all off if that is what you want to do. If that is the way it works.”
Holder then left the board room and others in the meeting soon followed.