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Columbia, Sauk counties declare state of emergency amid COVID-19 concerns
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Columbia, Sauk counties declare state of emergency amid COVID-19 concerns

Sauk and Columbia counties have declared a state of emergency amid growing COVID-19 concern and mitigation efforts.

By declaring a countywide emergency, both counties could be eligible for state and federal resources in handling the coronavirus pandemic locally. Additionally, the declaration makes both counties eligible for possible federal reimbursement on coronavirus related spending from Congress’s proposed $1 trillion stimulus package, said Joe Ruf, Columbia County corporation counsel.

“Our first interest is public health, the health of the community and the health of the staff,” said Ruf. “It gets us to join the federal and state states of emergency, because it gets us federal and state resources, and down the line some money. There’s going to be additional cost to county government.”

Additionally, Ruf said declaring a state of emergency allows for flexibility in operations and governing to accommodate health guidelines, gathering restrictions and protecting the health of residents and employees.

“In short, a lot of operations in government have to continue, they’re just going to continue differently,” said Ruf. “A lot of the laws we operate under as county governments just aren’t set up for this kind of situation, so we have to sort of make it up a bit as we go along.”

In Sauk County, the emergency declaration focuses on how the county board will continue to operate while working to contain the spread of the virus.

The emergency declaration states that the county board will suspend all attendance rules for supervisors who cannot or will not attend in person due to health concerns, and allows for those absent to telephone in for board and committee meetings.

It stipulates that a majority of the board must be physically present at the meeting, and those who attend via telephone will not be eligible to receive mileage or per diem reimbursement.

At Tuesday’s meeting in which the state of emergency was declared, the board voted at the beginning to suspend its rules to allow for six supervisors to telephone in to the meeting.

The declaration also states that all committee meetings will continue on an as-needed basis for important business. Meetings are left to the discretion of the committee chairman and the department head the committee oversees.

“The committees themselves are the core of the county board,” said Supervisor Patricia Rego. “It’s easier for committees to meet than the total board, when we’re looking at spacing right now.”

While the board and its committees will continue to meet, all public comment time will be taken off agendas. Residents are encouraged to view recordings of meetings online at the county’s website, as well as provide any comments to the board in writing.

These emergency measures will continue until April 30, and county buildings will remain open for the time being.

In Columbia County, buildings remain open but the emergency declaration provides the county the ability to restrict access or close offices or buildings as well as provide public services online or over the phone in place of face to face interactions.

The county also determined how to handle coronavirus related employee absences: all employees who have medical confirmation of coronavirus will be given a two-week paid leave.

Additionally, the county has restricted all employees traveling out of state for work purposes, and mandated that if any employees travel out of state for non-work purposes, they engage in a two-week self-quarantine. The quarantine will not be paid, but employees can utilize earned vacation and sick time.

The resolution also provides department heads the ability to alter employee work schedules or allow for telework.

Columbia County’s emergency declaration will stay in effect for 90 days, until June 16, and can be terminated early or extended as necessary.

Both Tim Lawther, Sauk County’s health officer, and Susan Lorenz, Columbia County’s health officer, have stated that there are no confirmed cases in either county.

Lorenz said there have been approximately 80 tests administered in Columbia County. Lawther could not provide a number for how many tests have been conducted in Sauk County.

Follow Nicole on Twitter @Nicole_Aimone

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