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Virus impacts county, town

By MARINA WATERS

Staff Writer

[email protected]

The COVID-19 virus is yet to officially hit Washington County, but that doesn’t mean the precautions haven’t.

The novel virus that has spread throughout multiple countries and is now spreading throughout the U.S. caused President Donald Trump to declare a national emergency on Friday, March 13, as businesses, restaurants and schools continued to close in order to cut down on the spread of the virus. 

According to the Tennessee Department of Health, Washington County is yet to see a confirmed case, but, as of press time for the Herald & Tribune, Tennessee has 73 confirmed cases with seven of those in East Tennessee and one in Northeast Tennessee. 

As a result of added cases, cancellations and shutdowns across the country and Tennessee, Washington County, its local schools and the Town of Jonesborough have all taken various precautions.

Washington County Schools

Washington County Director of Schools Bill Flanary announced on Monday that Washington County Schools will be closed March 18 through March 27, followed by spring break which is set for March 30 through April 3.

“That takes us through spring break which is the first week of April,” Flanary said. “Over that first week of April, I’m going to be in communication with the director of the health department to see what we can do when the school is supposed to reopen on April 6. We will obviously tell all of our parents and stakeholders what we plan to do. This will be based on current, real-time conditions in our area vis-a-vis 

COVID-19.”

Flanary told the Herald & Tribune about the closing on Monday after Gov. Lee suggested Tennessee school systems close in order to cut down the spread of the virus. Many have been concerned about how some students will find food if school is not in, but the county system plans to take care of that.

“From 10 a.m. until noon five days a week, we’ll be giving sack lunches to any child that shows up and asks for one — if it’s our kids, Johnson City or outside of the county, doesn’t matter.”

The schools’ closure also includes after school activities, clubs, sports and weekend tournaments.

As for business operations, Flanary said the central office and the maintenance department will be open. The school board will also meet next Tuesday to “look at payroll continuity”, Flanary said. 

“About half of our people are hourly wage earners and it is our desire and intent that no one goes without food for their family, no one has to stop paying their bills or buying prescriptions,” Flanary said. “So the board will come together. 

“Right now our finance department and our attorney is putting together a package so that we can pay people. Our funding stream is secure through the end of the fiscal year which is June 30. We feel confident that we can make payroll if not 100 percent, very close to 100 percent, through the end of the fiscal year to where everyone has the money they need to take care of their families.”

Town of Jonesborough

The Jonesborough Senior Center, the visitors center and the McKinney Center have temporarily closed its doors to the public in light of the health crisis.

“The staff will still be there, but we’re going to close to the public,” Town Administrator Bob Browning said. “The McKinney Center is the same way. We will be postponing classes. We’ll give the people who are currently participating some choices in terms of whether they get money for classes not being held or apply it as a credit or, in some cases, they might want to donate. But we’ll be closing the McKinney Center right away.”

As for the senior center, meals will still be available at the center as will the MyRide program. Updates on the senior center can also be found at https://www.facebook.com/JonesboroughSeniorCenter/.

“We will still hand (meals) out if people come to the center, but we will also deliver Meals on Wheels as we always do,” Senior Center Director Mary Regen said. “We will still have staff in the building so people can certainly call too. If there is a senior in need, they are still welcome to call the center for things in terms of meals or if they have questions.

“We just want to make sure people don’t panic that they won’t still be able to have these services. We have a lot of people who depend on the center for their meals.”

Browning also said the administrative area in Town Hall will be closed, but that the main hall and public safety portions will be open. He said essential services such as water and trash pickup will operate as normal. However, the town is aiming to cut down on foot traffic.

“We have it set up where people can pay bills online. They can call in if they’re using credit cards,” Browning said. “We need to eliminate as much foot traffic into town hall as much as possible for everybody’s protection.”

As for events, the town’s Easter Eggstravaganza event and the Music on the Square Fundraiser Gala scheduled for March 27th have both been canceled. The fundraiser, however, will most likely be reorganized to support the Music on the Square season, Browning said.

“That probably won’t happen the way it would have normally happened if it had been held on the 27th,” Browning said, “but we’ll do an auction some time after Music on the Square gets started. We’re going to do a donation campaign on the front end on the end of this month in support of Music on the Square. We hope people who have normally participated in that will continue to support MOTS. It’s a great program.”

As for the town’s business, Jonesborough Mayor Chuck Vest said the Jonesborough Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting set for March 24 is still on, with the hope of offering streaming services to those at home.

“I think it’s important we continue to have that meeting,” Vest said. “We’re going to try to put some things in place if we need to keep any attendees spread out and separated as much as possible. I think our expectations are we need to keep the one in March even if we need to talk about things like this.”

Vest also said he’s hoping local restaurants will be able to offer pickup options to feed the community while also keeping business moving as much as possible.

“We’re going to try to encourage some of our restaurants to do curbside pickup for meals,” Vest said. “People are going to still need to eat and our businesses still need revenue so we will encourage that.”

Washington County

Washington County Court is still open, but all in-person judicial proceedings will be suspended until March 31. Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy said judges and court clerks will continue their work through telephone, video, teleconferencing and email when possible.

“Courts are going operate differently after the Supreme Court justices’ order,” Grandy said. “Sessions court is having to post continuations and reschedulings in front of the courthouse. There was no way to get in touch with those people in the amount of time we had. Going forward weeks out, cases are going to be set in May and in other periods of time.”

The county has also been utilizing online options to keep operations running in court, as well as in other county service areas.

“General county government is planned to go uninterrupted. That’s the plan,” Grandy said. “It changes sometimes by the hour, but our general county services — the work in the courthouse, your property taxes, license plates, marriage and business licenses, all that type of work — is planned to continue as normal.

“We are asking whenever possible that people do work over the phone or through electronic methods. Essentially, all functions are open and running.”

As for county government, the county’s committee meetings scheduled for this month, along with the regularly scheduled March 23 meeting, have been cancelled. Grandy said the next county meetings will just have to “double up” on the county’s business.

“We just felt like it was important as county government to take a leadership role in curtailing public meetings,” Grandy said. “We’ll just double up on the business at the next time we can meet.”

The county is considering ways in which it can meet electronically.

“We’re looking at the possibility of being able to conduct business at the commission level somehow electronically or through video,” Grandy said. “That will allow us to meet without having to be in the same place. It will be complicated, but we’ve got Sunshine Laws we need to make sure we are in bounds with.”

For updates on Washington County Schools go to https://www.wcde.org. For updates on the Town of Jonesborough, go to https://www.jonesboroughtn.org/.  For updates on Washington County, go to http://www.washingtoncountytn.org.