Nelson County declared a local state of emergency late Wednesday afternoon in response to the growing threat to public health and safety caused by COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

According to a news release issued Thursday, the declaration allows the county to make decisions quickly "concerning emergency actions that might be needed in the best interest of and for the welfare of residents."

The declaration also allows for the allocation of local resources as the county sees necessary, in addition to allowing access to operational resources and funding from both state and federal agencies. 

While there still are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Nelson County as of Thursday, County Administrator Steve Carter, who signed the declaration, said it is a precautionary measure and it will allow the county to seek reimbursement should it have to use local funds to combat the virus.

“We don’t want to panic anybody, it's just sort of a cautionary measure just to make sure the county is in line for any potential assistance,” Carter said. “The declaration sort of safeguards the county to be eligible for assistance. It’s not an indication that the county is being impacted right now.” 

Emergency Services Coordinator Russell Gibson, who also signed the emergency declaration, agreed.

“In retrospect we don’t want to go ‘we should have done it.’ It's kind of just making sure we can demonstrate the need for these expenses should they be incurred,” Gibson said.

Carter added the county has begun tracking any expenses related to the virus, but he noted there hasn't been any real expenses as of yet.

In addition to the state of emergency, the county announced several government offices will be restricting access to just staff to ensure essential functions remain available.

“The idea behind our limiting public access is so those functions of the county can stay in place,” Gibson said.

Carter said given the small number of staff already, the county cannot afford employees getting sick.

"We’re such a small organization that we’re pretty dependent on everybody to be here," Carter said. 

Residents are asked to limit in-person visits to the administration and courthouse building and to call the department ahead of time to see if any requests can be completed remotely.

According to the release, those offices include Nelson County Building Inspection; The Commissioner of Revenue; Nelson County Economic Development and Tourism; Nelson County Information Services; Nelson County Memorial Library; Nelson County Parks and Recreation; Nelson County Planning and Zoning; Nelson County Public Schools, which are closed in accordance with a mandate issued by the governor; Nelson County Treasurer; and Nelson County Social Services.

The release states the Solid Waste Collection Center will remain open, but the re-use sheds are closed until further notice. 

Despite shifting many operations to be done remotely, Gibson noted there still will be some duties that only can be performed in person, but the county is trying to restrict that as much as possible.

"What can we do via phone, email and online forms to limit in-person contact and limit people having to travel around,” Gibson said. “It’s keeping the county functioning as normally as possible while keeping as little impact to residents as is necessary.”

Gibson also said the county is working on a contingency plan should employees have to be sent home because of sickness caused by the virus, but currently the county has no plans to limit staff.

He said the county has been in communication with different departments to develop plans should employees have to take time off. 

"Each department has been asked to identify what their working staff is. ... It's a plan of if one of your people comes in sick and has to be out two weeks, can person B do person A's job," Gibson said.

According to the resolution authorizing the emergency declaration, the state of emergency will remain in effect until the Nelson County Board of Supervisors approves it, either at its next regularly scheduled meeting or at a special meeting called within 45 days of the declaration, whichever comes first. If supervisors confirm the declaration, it will remain in full effect until the board votes to end it.

"... This whole thing on every level is causing extraordinary measures to be taken. We’re trying to stay on top of it," Carter said.

The declaration of a local emergency by the county is in addition to the national state of emergency declared by President Donald Trump on March 13 and a state of emergency for the commonwealth declared by Gov. Ralph Northam on March 12, the release said.

Nick Cropper covers Nelson County. Reach him at (434) 385-5522.

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