Breckenridge Texan

Stephens County Commissioners approve COVID-19 plan in emergency meeting

Stephens County Commissioners approve COVID-19 plan in emergency meeting
March 16
14:23 2020

In a special-called emergency meeting at 10 a.m. Monday, March 16, the Stephens County Commissioners voted to put into place a three-phase emergency COVID-19 plan for the county courthouse.

The first item the commissioners approved was to add a line item to the county budget that allows them to track all COVID-19 expenses so that the county can be reimbursed by the State of Texas. COVID-19 is the disease caused by the novel (new) coronavirus that was discovered late last year in China; the virus and the disease it causes have now spread to 148 countries, including the United States.

“The situation is still really fluid, which means everybody is trying to figure out what they’re doing,” County Judge Michael Roach said. “The CDC and State Health Department are telling us it’s not a matter of if (COVID-19 will be diagnosed in Stephens County), it’s just a matter of when, and it’s a matter of how severe it’s going to impact our community.

“As you may all well know, the people who are going to suffer the most are the most vulnerable, the elderly in our community, those with underlying health conditions,” he continued. ”I think it was said best in a post I read; it said this is not about not getting the virus, because most likely a lot of us will be in contact with it. But, this is about mitigating the burden on our local health care system.”

Then, the commissioners tackled the issue of how to protect the county’s citizens and the courthouse employees during the situation, which has been declared a national emergency by the president and a state of disaster by the Texas governor.

There are no known cases of COVID-19 in Stephens County, but Roach said everyone should react as if there are people with the disease here.

“I truly believe in my heart of hearts that there are probably cases locally or at least in the area, certainly in places like Abilene. They have just not been tested because there are not tests available,” he said. “I think it’s a false sense of security to say ‘no confirmed cases,’ because ‘confirmed’ doesn’t mean a lot right now. I think, as a County, we just go under the assumption that there are local cases that have not been reported yet or confirmed yet and err on the side of safety.”

One of the ways that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recommended for preventing the spread of COVID-19 is called “social distancing.” That means avoiding close contact with other people, especially those who have been diagnosed with the disease or who might have it. However, since relatively few people have been tested, the CDC is recommending that everyone practice social distancing on a regular basis for now.

Social distancing includes maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet between yourself and other people, minimizing contact with other people, avoiding groups of 50 or more people, working from home when you can, etc.

“We want to lead by example,” Roach said. “Self-quarantining and maintaining these distances is not only things that the county government should practice, but all of us as citizens should practice that same thing. This is about not spreading it.”

After some discussion about the types of actions they could take to facilitate social distancing at the courthouse, the commissioners approved a plan that includes the following phases and the actions associated with each one:

Phase 1, which is happening right now:

  • The Stephens County Courthouse will observe reduced hours of operation, opening at 9 a.m. and closing at 4 p.m., to give the employees more time to clean and disinfect their offices.
  • All entrances to the Stephens County Courthouse, except for the handicapped-accessible entrance on the east end of the building, will be closed. All other doors into the building will be locked and notices will be posted directing visitors to the east entrance. That will allow courthouse employees to more easily monitor who is coming into the courthouse and check anyone who appears sick. Additionally, it will make it easier for employees to clean the entrance area more often.
  • All restrooms in the courthouse will be closed to the public. Only employees will be allowed to use the restrooms.
  • Protective gear, including face masks and rubber gloves, will be ordered and distributed to employees who request them.
  • Half-doors will be installed in the doorways of the Justice of the Peace office and the County Attorney’s office, allowing visitors to talk to employees without entering the offices.
  • Glass or Plexiglas partitions will be installed in the Tax Office to allow citizens to pay bills and conduct other business without direct exposure to the employees.
  • County employees will construct a dropbox that will be installed outside the courthouse when necessary so that citizens can drop off documents without coming into the courthouse.
  • Stephens County employees who ask to stay home because they have a compromised immune system or are otherwise especially vulnerable to COVID-19 will be given flexibility by the county, allowing them to take the time off without jeopardizing their jobs.
  • Other protective measures will be taken as necessary

Phase 2, which is identified as beginning if and when the Breckenridge Independent School District closes the schools:

  • The County will initiate flexibility for Stephens County employees with school-age children, so that they can stay at home with their kids while school is out.

Phase 3, which is defined as happening when a positive case of COVID-19 is identified in Stephens County or in any of the adjacent counties, specifically Young, Throckmorton, Shackelford, Palo Pinto and/or Eastland counties:

  • A nurse will be hired to conduct screenings at the one entrance into the Stephens County Courthouse. The screenings are expected to include questions about the person’s current health situation, as well as their recent travel.

Throughout the meeting, the judge and the commissioners repeatedly talked about ways that the citizens of Stephens County can limit their exposure to others while still taking care of their business. The commissioners pointed out that some business can be handled online or by mail, such as renewing driver licenses or paying taxes.

Roach said that at some point, if there are widespread cases of COVID-19 throughout the community, the commissioners will consider closing the courthouse completely and taking a break from work. Some elected officials could work from home, if necessary.

“In my short tenure, we’ve never faced anything like this … that has impacted us on a local level like this,” he said. “This is all new territory for us, and we’re just trying to do what’s best, not only for our employees … but for the public, too. This is for all of us. If we take into consideration our most vulnerable employee and the most vulnerable citizen, that’s who we’re trying to protect with all this. It’s those folks who are most at risk that we’ve got to think about.”


Story by Carla McKeown/Breckenridge Texan

Cutline, top photo: The Stephens County Commissioners Court, from left, Mark McCullough, Ed Reynolds, County Judge Michael Roach, Eric O’Dell and Will Warren, met at 10 a.m. Monday, March 16, in an emergency meeting to discuss a county plan for the COVID-19 situation. (Photo by Tony Pilkington/Breckenridge Texan)

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