Up to a quarter of the city of Lynchburg’s workforce soon may be working from home. Virtually all government buildings in Bedford County have closed their doors to the public. And officials in the town of Amherst have directed staff members to begin rotating shifts in an effort to protect public servants from the threats posed by the coronavirus.
The widening pandemic is forcing local governments in the Lynchburg region to take steps once unthinkable as they work to maintain a semblance of normal life in a world turned upside down by COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
In Lynchburg, city Manager Bonnie Svrcek has asked department heads to identify employees who can work remotely beginning Monday. Critical employees, including police officers and other officials needed in an emergency, will continue to be physically present at work, but the city is asking others employees to work entirely from home or on a rotating shift.
“We’re doing our very best to have minimal staffing while maintaining continuity of operations at the same time,” Svrcek said. “Wherever we can have people telecommute, we’re certainly encouraging that.”
The move to minimal staffing comes as the city takes dramatic steps to alleviate pressure on residents and businesses hampered by the crisis.
On Thursday, Lynchburg officials announced the city is suspending all water service cutoffs through May 15, lifting parking fees for the foreseeable future and deferring taxes on local businesses until later this spring.
Meanwhile, the city is discouraging visitors from entering city hall during the duration of the crisis and is instead directing residents and business owners to make payments online.
In neighboring Bedford County, about a tenth of local government employees are using sick and vacation leave to look after their children while schools are closed, according to Administrator Robert Hiss.
The county now is transitioning to minimal staffing and is preparing to conduct several government services online, including accepting payments and filings digitally.
“We really want to direct our citizens to interact differently with government business,” Hiss said.
To limit the spread of the disease among government workers, the county has allocated an additional two weeks of sick leave to any employee who contracts COVID-19 or has been exposed to the virus. Hiss said the county now is considering allowing employees to donate banked sick leave to colleagues who have exhausted their allotment.
“I think so far our employees have weathered the challenge,” Hiss said. “I think they’re up to it, but I will say that there is a level of nervousness about how long this is going to last. There’s just so much unknown and that’s not typical for government employees.”
Each day brings with it a higher toll of coronavirus patients. In Virginia, there are now about 117 cases of the disease, including three in Charlottesville and one in the Roanoke region.
In response to the health threat, Campbell County officials are allowing employees to work from home, when able. The local government — the only one in the region which has not yet declared a local state of emergency — has shuttered parks and recreation programs, library facilities, senior centers and the county’s animal shelter to visitors.
Administrator Frank Rogers said he does not anticipate any effect on county services beyond the previously announced closures.
Employees in county departments closed to the public still are working and receiving pay. Rogers said that everything is subject to change as the situation evolves, and additional measures could be taken in coming days.
The county also has redoubled custodial efforts with a particular focus on high contact surfaces. Residents are encouraged to contact the county through phone or email rather than visit county offices in person.
Local officials in Amherst, Appomattox and Nelson counties are also encouraging employees to work remotely if their job allows it. According to Appomattox County Administrator Susan Adams, public employees in the locality are responsible for submitting daily updates on productivity.
Despite the slowdown in activity, life goes on in the halls of government. Elected officials still are holding meetings, though some public bodies have suspended public hearings while others are live streaming the proceedings.
In Lynchburg, the city government is experimenting with solutions to the limits imposed by gathering restrictions. Curbside delivery at the Lynchburg Public Library already has proven successful. Svrcek, the city manager, expects the new service to last beyond the end of the pandemic.
“This has forced us to think differently, but we really do want, in some basic way, to maintain some continuation of operations,” Svrcek said. “Perhaps we can be part of the stability in a time of instability.”
Richard Chumney covers Liberty University for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5547.