Public employees keep local government running amid coronavirus crisis

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These are the latest numbers from 7 p.m. update Sunday night by Georgia Department of Public Health.

While some government buildings have been closed to reduce the risk of spreading coronavirus, city and county workers have changed the way they work in order to keep essential services operating.

Governments have adjusted schedules and increased employees’ ability to work from home to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic. Many in metro Atlanta are using a mix of staggered schedules, remote work and social distancing on the job to keep both employees and residents safe.

The “staggered schedules” approach is being utilized by cities including East Point, Lawrenceville and Duluth. Employees who can’t work from home, like those who manage water and sewer operations, come in to the office on an every-other-day basis. Smaller groups are in the workplace and daily duties still get done.

“The intent is to help limit the opportunity for exposure for our employees and keep things going normally,” said Jennifer Bennett, a spokeswoman for the city of Smyrna.

Code enforcement officers, building inspectors and sanitation workers are using this strategy in cities across the metro area to keep residents’ lives running as close to normal as they can. In Smyrna’s public works department, each shift is limited to half the staff working at a time in order to encourage social distancing.

Most cities have used a variety of techniques to keep services running as normal, or close to it. Some in-person bill payment operations have been adjusted so it isn’t necessary for the public to come to an office — Sugar Hill moved theirs to the Eagle Theater and is waiving fees for online and phone transactions. Water, gas and trash services continue as normal for residents.

For those who don’t have to deal with the public on a daily basis, the switch has been much simpler. Many office-based government employees could easily make the transition to working from home; most just needed to have access to a computer and internet, said Jennifer Boettcher, a spokeswoman for the city of Dunwoody.

“We’re all on the phone and we have VPN access to our systems,” Boettcher said. “It’s different because city hall is closed, but we’re definitely open for business.”

Some governments are still working on how to help some public-facing employees do their jobs without exposing them to health risks. Gwinnett County closed its four main government buildings and won’t reopen until March 24, but is using the time to fine-tune its plans for workers who have to be in the office to accept permit applications, tax licenses and other documents.

For jobs that require interacting with other workers or the public, Gwinnett plans to utilize social distancing — keeping six feet of space between people — and avoiding large groups of people whenever possible, spokesman Joe Sorenson said.

Local governments are largely in uncharted territory with the coronavirus pandemic, but have adjusted emergency plans that have previously been used for short-term issues like winter storms. While social distancing isn’t necessary on a snow day, dovetailing shifts for public works employees and remote operations for office workers have been used before, Bennett said.