We’re in a state of flux, Tipton County Executive Jeff Huffman told a room full of department heads and decision makers Tuesday afternoon during a meeting about how the county will handle the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The response this county’s going to have is going to be based on what we know and it’s going to be fluid from day-to-day,” he said. “The policies we set on day one may not fly after day 15 or 14. It depends upon the severity of the outbreak and the statistics we look at that determines what our response ought to be.”
As the department heads shared their updates, someone in the back of the room coughed several times. A symbol of the new normal, others in the room raised their eyebrows and looked cautiously in her direction. Small bottles of hand sanitizer, which can no longer be found in stores, sat out at each seat.
The hour-long meeting covered plans for paying part-time employees, coronavirus testing concerns, closures, declaring a state of emergency, the potential economic impact and more.
Part-time employees will still be paid
Huffman vowed to continue to pay the county’s part-time employees in the event they are not able to work due to a closure or illness.
“If, for example, Tipton County closes the library … Director (Susan) Cheairs has part-time employees there. We’re going to continue to pay those folks. Tipton County has got resources that we can try to get people through this. We don’t folks employed by us, through no fault of their own (having to lose hours), not to receive their check.”
That applies for the short-term, and long-term closures may require re-evaluation.
“Now, as time goes by, depending on how this thing works out, we may have to change that philosophy but right now, going into this, the intention is to pay our part-time people if they have to miss work due to a coronavirus issue or due to a closing because of the coronavirus issue.”
He told the department heads to anticipate different personnel issues related to the pandemic.
“We’re going to be liberal in regards to the personnel handbook because we really don’t have a choice. We’re just going to have to work through that as move our way along.”
Huffman has also frozen all travel by county employees – meaning, to conferences and training – for at least the next two weeks. Additionally, they are being encouraged to be mindful of social media posts downplaying the pandemic.
“You can’t say it’s a conspiracy and also tell your employees to keep washing their hands and not touch their face,” Dunavant.
Tests are scarce
Some Tipton Countians have been tested for this strain of coronavirus.
How many tests have been conducted locally remains unknown – The Leader has reached out to Baptist Hospital and cannot confirm numbers with the inundated Tipton County Health Department – but there have been no confirmed cases thus far.
That doesn’t mean no one in Tipton County has the virus, it just means testing has not yet identified a case.
“There aren’t enough test kits,” he said. “Tennessee doesn’t have near enough tests. There are a lot of test kits coming, but we still don’t know how many the state of Tennessee is going to see.”
Preventative measures are all we have going for us, said Tipton County Emergency Management Agency Director Tommy Dunavant as he discussed the measures to help slow the spread, and flatten the curve, of infection.
“The next 14 days are going to tell us a lot,” he said. “We find out a lot day-to-day.”
Dunavant said one of the biggest issues the hospital is currently facing is people going to Baptist-Tipton and asking to be tested whether they’ve had symptoms or not.
“That’s not the way it’s supposed to go. We’re telling people if you feel sick, stay home. Don’t go to work. Contact your medical provider, your primary care physician. Don’t go to the hospital because they’re probably not going to let you in the door. If you call them, they’ll give you some guidance.”
Huffman said one of the good things about Tipton’s proximity to Memphis is the benefit of uninsured persons receiving care at Regional One Hospital in Memphis (formerly The Med). Additionally, Tipton County still has an operational hospital at a time when 20 rural counties do not.
“So they’re going to be in dire need of coming to these facilities, either ours or some of the hospitals in the metropolitan areas.”
Gauging the potential economic damage
The effect the pandemic will have on our local economy is a concern to many people. In the world of local government, budget meetings and proposals are the usual order of business going into the second quarter.
“The economic damage is a concern as well and we’ve got budget hearings come up on the 2021 budget year. We’re expecting a flurry of sales tax revenue increase from January on because everyone’s rushing to buy up all the toilet paper and consumer goods, so we intend to see a spike. The problem is that after that we intend to see a real deep valley in sales tax revenue cycle. So, when we’re looking at the 2021 budget year, we’re most likely going to be very conservative on the revenue streams in terms of tax collections, property tax collections and the sales tax revenue because we just don’t know what’s going to happen with the economy.”
Tipton County is one of only two counties in the state that is debt-free – and that will help tremendously at a time when there’s instability with the market and a potential recession looming.
“We’re in a real time of indecision and uncertainty. Having said all of that, I do want to reemphasize the resources that this county has are considerable. We’re in very good financial shape, so if we have to ride this thing out for a longer period of time than we think, or that most folks anticipate, I think we’re gonna be able to do that.”
When will he declare a state of emergency?
Though the president declared a national emergency, and the governor a state of emergency, last week, Huffman has not yet done so.
“We’re still looking at that. If the time comes when I need to do that, I will. If there is price gouging, I can declare an emergency and we can prosecute folks pretty quickly. If we need to circumvent processes to get needed supplies quickly, that allows us to do that. There are some things and there may be some cases where I’ll need to declare a state of emergency, but we’re not there yet.”
Things can change quickly, though, he said.
Many local government offices have changed their hours, closed satellite offices and began operating virtually, or at a distance, if possible.
The listing of closures county-wide grows every day and can be seen on The Leader’s Coronavirus and Tipton County page. The page is updated several times each day.
Schools are closed for cleaning, but still feeding students
Schools have been closed this week and superintendent John Combs said a waiver for standardized testing had been introduced to the state legislature. Teachers are currently off, but custodial staff members at each school are working to disinfect buildings and buses.
They are able to wipe down, then mist with disinfectant, approximately 40 buses per day. They are doing the same thing inside the schools.
As far as feeding the students during the closure, which has been extended through March 31, the district can distribute food for the days in which they’d planned to be in session only.
“The district doesn’t receive any food from the state for the days we were already scheduled to be off, which would be spring break next week,” Combs said.
“We’re feeding any child under 18, they don’t have to be a student.”
Anyone in need of food, or who would like to make donations, can find a list of drive-thru food pantries and food drives here.
The jail will change visitation starting this weekend
Sheriff Pancho Chumley said his office is making sure its employees have what they need.
“At home, we want to make sure the family is being taken care of and we’re being as proactive as possible.”
Things are changing daily, but right now deputies are taking as many reports by phone as possible to stay in compliance with social distancing recommendations.
“We’ve been talking to Tipton Countians and they’re supporting us. It’s very nice and we’re thankful for that,” he said. “If there are any reports where they need us to be there, we’ll be there. We’re not going to stop policing.”
They are screening arrestees for fevers and taking extra precautions to make sure everything, including the backs of their patrol cars, is sanitized.
Jail visits will stop at 5 p.m. on Friday, March 20. Those needing to add money to an inmate’s commissary or conduct video visits may do so through jailfunds.com.
“Our office is open as usual, but we want to minimize contact as much as possible,” the sheriff said. “We want to pray and not panic.”
Other changes at county offices
Court proceedings were suspended last week by the Tennessee Supreme Court, and court dates will be rescheduled. They are still able to set bonds, arraign people who’ve been arrested and release inmates who’ve served their sentence.
“We’re still able to conduct that sort of business,” said court clerk Mike Forbess, “just not jury trials, which hits us as a hard time.
Tipton County Clerk Mary Gaither announced Tuesday her satellite office in Munford would close and shared other ways in which business could be conducted at a distance.
There was no discussion about closures for public works, including the Tipton County Animal Shelter, which rescued 46 dogs from a hoarding situation on Brighton-Clopton Road Tuesday afternoon.
The senior center in Covington is closed, but meal delivery through MIFA’s Meals on Wheels program has continued.
The Tipton County Library in Covington remains open, but has changed its hours from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
“One of the things we’re considering is whether to close the library in the future,” Huffman said. “A lot of folks are saying they need to go to the library to check out books because they know they’re going to be home for so long and so the library is open now, but that could change pretty soon.”
Future meetings with department heads would be conducted in ways which respect the Centers for Disease Control’s social distancing recommendations.
Huffman said it would be a challenge to work through the pandemic, and to navigate so many different factors of closures and distancing, because the county is comprised of so many different services from the landfill to the library and policing the county.
“The objective here at the end of the day is to protect the workforce and the folks who work for Tipton County government. And the objective is to provide for the health and welfare of the citizens of Tipton County. That’s what we’re trying to do, that’s the direction we’re headed, and we’ll use the resources we’ll have to use to make sure we get that done.”