The Carlton County Board of Commissioners declared a state of peacetime emergency at their meeting Monday, March 23 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

After much discussion among the county department heads, county coordinator and the board, the commissioners voted to keep most of the buildings open to the public by appointment only.

A few are closed, including the CareerForce Center and the Motor Vehicle Registration Office at the Community Services Building in Cloquet. A huge concern voiced by department heads was if the Motor Vehicle Registration Office was kept open as originally planned, there would be a large influx of people from other counties coming in if their offices are closed.

“We need to protect the people in our county,” Gary Peterson said. “We need to put safeguards in place and find a balance between serving the public and employee safety.”

Dick Brenner expressed concern about keeping employees and not laying anyone off. County Coordinator Dennis Genereau said officials would get creative to keep employees working as long as possible. As of Monday's meeting, no county employees have been laid off.

Dave Lee, county director of Health and Human Services, said once that office was shuttered, foot traffic would drop to a trickle and lower the danger of other office employees in the building coming in contact with the coronavirus.

The lobby and service windows will remain open for now.

He said his department has changed to mostly phone and video contact with the public.

“Our building has advantages many do not,” Lee said. “We designed the building with safety factors in mind, including video access. It is set up exceptionally well. I think we are going to be here for a long time.”

He said while they utilize telesocial services, sometimes face-to-face meetings are necessary for social workers. In those instances, social workers will wear face masks.

Another reason Lee wants to see county buildings open to the public is to help keep a small sense of normalcy in this unprecedented time.

“A big concern is the long-term psychological effects from isolation,” Lee said. “We will be dealing with the post impact of this for a while.”

Telemental health services is an important tool for the county at this time of social distancing.

Maintenance workers are cleaning county buildings three times each day, Genereau said. Furthermore, he said he agrees with Lee that officials should try to keep things as normal for the public as possible.

Residents, including county employees, still need to work to meet their basic needs, and Genereau said he feels the county should still be open to serve them also.

Veteran Service Officer Duane Brownie said his office is not allowing any face-to-face meetings, but is handling everything by phone.

Minnesota's Sixth Judicial District Court, which includes courthouses in Carlton, Cook, Lake and St. Louis counties, will limit the people who participate in hearings to attorneys involved in the cases, necessary court staff and anyone else the presiding judge determines as necessary to the hearing. The courthouse will be closed to the public.

"High priority criminal matters" will still move through the system, according to a news release sent by Carlton County. Bail hearings will be held for people in the Carlton County Jail, as well.

The changes mean Carlton County Attorney Laurie Ketola's schedule will open up, and as a result, her office is working on a list of things they have not had time to do. Several people who work in the county attorney's office are able to work from home.

The Carlton County Sheriff's Office will continue responding to 911 calls and patrolling the county, Sheriff Kelly Lake said in a news release. For non-emergency calls, a deputy will contact the person by phone to take a report instead of doing so in-person.

The sheriff's office will be closed to the public, except by appointment only, and effective March 25, no inmates are allowed visitors until further notice.

Lee said the measures are meant to help the county maintain services, and prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“We need to position ourselves for the long haul,” he said. “We need to adjust our practices. It needs to be sustainable now so we are not constantly readjusting. This is a marathon.”

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