Metro governments facing safety challenges as employees return to work

Keith Smith sprays sanitizer on the athletic equipment at the Frank Bailey Senior Center during the county’s deep cleaning and sanitizing of the building in preparation for the upcoming public reopening. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Keith Smith sprays sanitizer on the athletic equipment at the Frank Bailey Senior Center during the county’s deep cleaning and sanitizing of the building in preparation for the upcoming public reopening. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Dublin City Manager Lance Jones knows the city was right to cancel its St. Patrick’s Day celebration. It’s a move, he said, that may have kept hundreds of people from contracting COVID-19.

But now, Jones said, it’s time to get back to business. When Gov. Brian Kemp’s state of emergency expires Wednesday, it will be the last day the 40 or so workers at City Hall will be working in their spare rooms or at their kitchen tables.

Thursday, he said, city employees will return to City Hall.

“When we closed down, we started to think about ‘How do we open this thing back up?’” Jones said. “I think people are going to expect us to be open now. I feel it’s safe, if we take the proper precautions.”

Across Georgia, local governments are trying to decide if the time is right to go back to the office — and if so, how to do it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have recommended guidelines, but there is no one-size-fits-all solution, leaders say.

And as the number of Georgia deaths from the virus grows, and new infections increase with more testing, a wrong move could have fatal consequences.

"There has been a lot of discussion around how do we bring people back and get working but without exposing anyone to the virus or increasing liability because of that exposure," said Felicia Franklin Warner, a commissioner in Clayton County, which tentatively plans to open its offices Monday.

Local governments have already seen how serious it can be. At least two local government employees, who had been working in their offices, contracted COVID-19 and later died.

In the south Fulton County city of Fairburn, police department employee Cheryl Catron died April 3 after Fairburn Mayor Elizabeth Carr-Hurst refused to let staffers telework in March. And in Fulton County, elections employee Beverly Walker died April 10 while voter registration chief Ralph Jones was briefly hospitalized with the disease.

Rick Warren, a labor and employment law attorney for human resources law firm FordHarrison, said employees who have underlying health issues that may put them at higher risk for contracting the disease can seek accommodations from employers, such as telecommuting.

But, he said, workers will have to return to work when their governments reopen, or their absence may be considered quitting.

“A generalized concern about the coronavirus is not a valid excuse to fail to report to work if you’ve been recalled to return to work,” he said.

‘When will you bring them back?’

The Georgia Municipal Association has created guidelines for cities that are ready to reopen city halls. The group recommends cities encourage social distancing, such as moving desks so people have more space between them; stagger lunch breaks and working hours; and rotate weeks that employees are in the office or working remotely. They also suggest governments prohibit handshakes, use video or teleconferencing instead of meeting in person and have a plan for what to do if an employee is exposed to, or diagnosed with, COVID-19.

Artiffany Stanley, the member services consultant for the association, said city managers and other officials have been using the group’s listserv to crowdsource ideas for how best to reopen, or how to treat at-risk employees or those who still have to worry about childcare or other issues that could prevent them from simply walking back in to the office.

“If you don’t bring them back now, when will you bring them back?” she asked. “We don’t know how long we’re going to be facing this pandemic.”

Many governments are ready to open their doors, or have already done so.

Henry County reopened its offices May 4, one of the first to do so in metro Atlanta. To facilitate social distancing, half the county's employees are coming in on odd-numbered days and half on even-numbered days. Staffers have their temperatures taken before being allowed in the building — those with fevers are sent home or to testing sites if suspected of having the coronavirus — and masks are required at all times.

And instead of holding in-person meetings, employees will continue to use Zoom or other meetings software to reduce contact, spokeswoman Melissa Robinson said.

Lawrenceville, in Gwinnett County, will close its lunch rooms and break rooms when employees start coming back to work on Thursday. Chuck Warbington, the city manager, said in addition to staggering start times so no one crowds around the time clock, he split workers up not by departments, but by teams.

“My fear was one of our employees getting the virus and wiping out the whole department,” he said. “We’re limiting the amount of contact a person has. That’s the new normal we live in.”

‘Has to cause you alarm’ 

Not everyone is in a rush to get people back to work. Fulton Chief Operating Officer Anna Roach told county commissioners Wednesday she would have to see a slowdown in positive tests before employees come back to the office.

And when they do return, every staffer must have a face mask and other protective equipment. Roach suggested the county continue to prioritize teleworking and allow no more than three people at in-person meetings, even when they’re allowed back in.

Dublin’s City Hall won’t reopen to the public until May 20, so staffers can get used to the new way of operating — one-way hallways, a ban on break-room gatherings and a 10-person limit on the number of non-staffers who can be in the building at one time.

The city has a drive-through window it has been using, Jones said, and he will continue to encourage residents to go there instead of walking inside. Still, there are some aspects of government — like Dublin’s popular, year-old water park — that may not reopen this year at all.

Clayton Commission Chairman Jeff Turner said he expects the openings to be controversial.

"The government has to be doing the business of the people because they are going to expect it," Turner said. "If we continue to stay shut, they'll say, 'We pay your salaries, why are y'all still shut down? Why are you not providing services? Why are the recreation centers still not opened? Why are the senior centers not open?'"

Still, Turner said, caution is necessary. The county had planned initially to open the first week of May, but postponed the move until Monday after a late-April surge in coronavirus infections in Clayton.

A rise in positive tests is to be expected, Turner said, when more tests are being conducted.

“But still,” he said, “that has to cause you alarm.”

Other government leaders have felt, and responded to, other kinds of push back. When Gwinnett County teachers and staff were asked to come back to their classrooms and offices, they revolted, quickly causing leaders to reconsider the edict that would have required employees to return beginning May 18.

“There are a lot of us who just feel it’s too early to come back to work in the building,” one staffer at the J. Alvin Wilbanks Instructional Support Center said.

Jones, in Dublin, said the most important thing is to make a measured decision — not a dogmatic one.

“It’s the public’s building. The public needs to be able to come and do business as long as we can keep them safe while doing it,” he said. “There’s always a balance. It’s not a black-and-white answer.”

Staff writers Ben Brasch and Arlinda Smith Broady contributed to this story.