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Managing Your Agency’s Response to the Coronavirus, COVID-19

March 3, 2020  by  Jill Dvorkin
Category:  Emergency Management COVID-19

Managing Your Agency’s Response to the Coronavirus, COVID-19

This blog is intended to assist local governments in preparing for and managing the possible disruptions in day-to-day government operations and services that could occur as more cases of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, are anticipated in Washington communities. It is also intended to describe, in basic terms, authorities available to cities and counties to respond to public health emergencies.

MRSC has a webpage, Coronavirus (COVID-19) Resources, which includes sample documents from Washington State jurisdictions that experienced previous public health emergencies.

Local Governments as Employers

There are many ways that a local government can, as an employer, mitigate health risks to employees (and the public) and adapt the workplace in response to an outbreak of a communicative disease. This planning document for workplaces, prepared by Seattle-King County Public Health, is an excellent resource covering both precautionary measures an agency can take to protect employees, as well as step-by-step guidance for planning for disruptions in day-to-day business. Below are a few additional considerations. 

Educate employees on prevention and treatment

While this goes without saying, local governments should actively encourage behavior that will help prevent the spread of the disease in the workplace. This includes following the guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which covers the basics such as washing hands frequently, sanitizing surfaces, and staying home from work if you are showing symptoms associated with the disease.

Local governments should communicate regularly with its staff with updates about the disease, consider providing hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes in its public spaces, and display signs reminding employees and the public about best disease prevention practices.

Ensure informational resources are available

Local, state, and federal public health officials have already made abundant resources available for employers and organizations related to the coronavirus. The Washington State Department of Health has a webpage dedicated to COVID-19, as well as a call center to answer questions (1-800-525-0127, then press #). Additionally, each county has its own public health department that has likely issued guidance specific to the jurisdiction.

Allow remote attendance and telecommuting

In the weeks and months ahead, it may be necessary or prudent for staff and elected officials to work from home and/or participate in meetings remotely. It’s important to have appropriate policies in place to address these circumstances. Some jurisdictions may already have personnel policies related to public health emergencies or disasters, and we offer sample policies in the section Personnel Reporting to Work in Declared Emergency on our Local Government Emergency Planning topic page.

Note that under the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), remote participation in a public meeting is OK so long as the participant can hear, be heard, and participate effectively in the meeting. While the governing body can participate remotely, the telephone or other device used for the meeting must be located in a physical location so that the public can attend the meeting and hear the communications. This blog post describes what a remote attendance policy might include and offers sample policies from several jurisdictions, and the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) released additional guidance on how to conduct public meetings during the COVID-19 outbreak.

If your personnel policies do not already include policies to allow for telecommuting by employees, your agency may want to adopt some. If there are already telecommuting policies in place, you will want to ensure they are flexible enough to address a fast-changing situation. Here is a link to our topic page on Telecommuting, which includes sample policies.

Anticipate absenteeism

Local governments in Washington could experience workplace closures or a significantly reduced staff as a result of the coronavirus and associated responses. Do your leave policies account for emergency circumstances? The AGO's 2006 Informal Opinion analyzes whether/how to pay employees during a closure mandated by a public health official.

Ultimately, whether a local government continues to pay employees during mandated or extended leave will depend on the local policies already in place regarding leave. See this blog post related to inclement weather policies for additional analysis and consult with your agency attorney and human resources department about any interplay with state and federal leave laws. Here is an example of a 2006 Executive Order by the City of Olympia related to a pandemic response that would allow the city to send an employee home and explicitly sets forth how sick leave, etc., could be used in various circumstances.

Consider canceling a public meeting, if necessary

There may be a need to cancel or reschedule a public meeting. This blog post reviews the procedures to follow if the need arises. 

Calling an emergency meeting

There may also be a need to call an emergency public meeting to develop plans or brief citizens on local actions and responses. The OPMA provides that:

If, by reason of fire, flood, earthquake, or other emergency, there is a need for expedited action by a governing body to meet the emergency, the presiding officer of the governing body may provide for a meeting site other than the regular meeting site and the notice requirements of this chapter shall be suspended during such emergency.

See RCW 42.30.070.

While the 24-hour notice for a special meeting can be waived, an agency should state on the record the reason for the short notice — e.g., coronavirus — and the need to get policies in place and respond to the emerging situation.

Local Governments and Emergency Powers

Emergency Public Health Orders

In response to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 and associated fears of bioterrorism, the AGO published a memo on the legal authority of local governments when faced with public health emergencies (updated in 2008). This memo continues to be an excellent resource, and one local governments should be referring to in determining limits on how they may respond to the rapidly evolving COVID-19 situation.

In short, local health officials (and cities and counties, more generally) have broad authority under state law to take actions necessary to protect public health. This power is derived both in the Washington State Constitution (police powers, Article 11, Section 11) and in statutes such as Ch. 70.05 RCW, which addresses local health officials. In Spokane County Health District v. Brockett, 120 Wn.2d. 140, 149 (1992), a case regarding the legality of a needle exchange program operated by the Spokane County Health District, the Washington Supreme Court wrote:

[t]he legislatively delegated power to cities and health boards to control contagious diseases gives them extraordinary power which might be unreasonable in another context.

In a much earlier case regarding a quarantine related to a smallpox outbreak, City of Seattle v. Cottin, 144 Wash. 572, 576 (1927), the court stated:

There is no doubt and it is not denied that the city had the power to enact the ordinance here in question and had the power to create health and quarantine officers, as it has done, by the charter and ordinance provisions.

The CDC’s most recent guidance makes clear that local authorities have primary responsibility over public health orders. It includes the following:

The issuance of a public health order should be considered in the context of other less restrictive means that could accomplish the same public health goals. People under public health orders must be treated with respect, fairness, and compassion, and public health authorities should take steps to reduce the potential for stigma (e.g., through outreach to affected communities, public education campaigns). Considerable, thoughtful planning by public health authorities is needed to implement public health orders properly. Specifically, measures must be in place to provide shelter, food, water, and other necessities for people whose movement is restricted under public health orders, and to protect their dignity and privacy. 

For more information, see also Federal and State Quarantine and Isolation Authority from the Congressional Research Service Report for Congress (October 9, 2014) and the CDC’s Legal Authorities for Isolation and Quarantine.

State regulations emphasize coordination among local, regional, and state agencies. Any local actions should be done in consultation with other local and state officials.

Emergency Declarations

Local governments have the power to declare emergencies. For statutory references for your specific type of jurisdiction, see the section Proclaiming a Disaster or Emergency on our Local Government Emergency Planning page.

A declaration of emergency allows local governments to bypass procedural requirements related to expenditures and contracting, among other things. Dow Constantine, King County Executive, signed a Proclamation of Emergency on March 1, 2020, enabling the use of “extraordinary measures” to combat the spread of the virus. He also activated the King County Emergency Operations Center to coordinate with cities across the region. The City of Redmond recently issued an emergency proclamation pursuant to RCW 38.52.070, and here is a Proclamation of Civil Emergency for the City of Seattle recently issued by Mayor Jenny Durkan.

For more information on emergency declarations, see the Elected Officials’ Guide to Emergency Management.

Additional Resources

Here are a few additional resources for local governments:

We hope this post will help local government agencies feel more prepared to maintain the health and welfare of their communities. We will be updating our materials as they come available. If you have additional questions, feel free to contact us online via Ask MRSC or by calling (206) 625-1300 or toll free at (800) 933-6772. 

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Jill Dvorkin

Jill joined MRSC as a legal consultant in June 2016 after working for nine years as a civil deputy prosecuting attorney for Skagit County. At Skagit County, Jill advised the planning department on a wide variety of issues including permit processing and appeals, Growth Management Act (GMA) compliance, code enforcement, SEPA, legislative process, and public records. Jill was born and raised in Fargo, ND, then moved to Bellingham to attend college and experience a new part of the country (and mountains!). She earned a B.A. in Environmental Policy and Planning from Western Washington University and graduated with a J.D. from the University of Washington School of Law in 2003.



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