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Johnson City commissioners will meet Thursday as scheduled; city preps for COVID-19

David Floyd • Mar 18, 2020 at 8:12 PM

Amid statewide concerns about the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), the Johnson City Commission plans to meet as scheduled at 6 p.m. Thursday at City Hall with some additional precautions.

City Manager Pete Peterson said Wednesday he expects officials will enforce proper social distancing recommendations during the meeting, maintaining several feet of separation.

“We will scatter ourselves on the dais and require that people in the audience scatter themselves to keep appropriate distances between them,” Peterson said.

Washington County has canceled all of its meetings for March, including its County Commission meeting scheduled on March 23. The town of Jonesborough, meanwhile, is still planning on holding its regular Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting on March 24 but has canceled its committee meetings.

Peterson said city officials have been active in conversations at the state level about passing legislation in the General Assembly that would allow local governments to meet electronically should there be a local epidemic.

Updated figures released Wednesday afternoon by the Tennessee Department of Health show that there are now 98 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state. Sullivan County still has one case, and Washington County still has none. Davidson and Williamson counties, however, continue to be the hardest hit counties in Tennessee with 58 and 24 cases, respectively.

Peterson said that under current open meetings laws, if three commissioners can’t physically participate in a meeting, the City Commission cannot conduct business. As is, Peterson said the bill working its way through the state legislature contains suitable protections for the public.

In the event that city commissioners do need to meet remotely in the future, Peterson said he has asked members of the city’s IT staff to evaluate ways to accomplish that.

“The option that we will choose will be the option that ensures the people’s business is done in public and that affords the general public an assured opportunity to participate in the meeting,” Peterson said.

Additionally, Johnson City has closed recreation facilities until further notice with the exception of this week’s spring break camps. Facility closures include the Memorial Park Community Center/Senior Center, Carver Recreation Center and the Langston Centre.

Parks, playgrounds and Pine Oaks Golf Course will remain open.

Peterson said every city department has also been tasked with coming up with an emergency response plan. This planning process has involved determining which city employees can work from home, what it would take to set up remote work spaces, and cross-training employees to ensure more than one person can accomplish specific tasks.

The city has also been identifying non-essential services — Peterson mentioned cutting grass at city facilities, historic zoning and the public art committee meetings — that the city can shut down in the event there is a local epidemic.

Peterson said essential city services would include providing water and sewer to residents, maintaining police and fire services, conducting payroll, accepting bill payments and ordering materials like chemicals for the city’s water and sewer plants.

The city is encouraging people to conduct business by phone or online when possible, and in a press release last week, officials said staff are disinfecting common spaces, counters and door handles regularly during business hours at all Johnson City facilities.

Peterson said there have also been discussions about how local leaders can maintain child care services for health care workers, first responders and mission-critical government employees.

“I think we’ve got a good plan in place, and we’re starting to implement some of that plan to ensure that all of our services continue and they continue in a manner that is safe — not only for our employees but for the general public,” Peterson said.

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