Effective March 19, public access to Sussex County government buildings has all but been eliminated.
Only plastic tubs in the lobby of the administrative offices building on The Circle in Georgetown are available for the public to drop off documents for processing by county staff. No other access is permitted.
A partition has been erected in the lobby to separate employees from any possible contact with the public.
Marriage ceremonies have been suspended and cash payments are halted as the county responds to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, vital services will still be available through modified means, said County Administrator Todd Lawson.
“The philosophy we are using is one to balance the safety and welfare of our employees and the public while keeping the county operational for those out there working and trying to survive during this serious situation,” Lawson said.
The public will be allowed limited entry only to the lobby of the county administrative offices building from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays to drop off documents. Select staff will remain at work or telecommute to continue daily operations, but in-person contact with employees in their respective offices will be prohibited.
Officials are encouraging the public to do as much business as possible through email and telephone. Scanned documents, such as building permit applications, requests for site inspections, deed recordings and more, can be transmitted to offices electronically.
The county has developed a COVID-19 portal to provide specific information about modified services, at sussexcountyde.gov/coronavirus. Information on contacting county offices is available at sussexcountyde.gov, and will be posted outside county facilities.
The marriage bureau has suspended performing all wedding ceremonies and issuing licenses, though certified-copy applications will be received electronically or via drop-off.
Lawson said the office saw a spike in business earlier this week as couples anticipated an office closure.
County offices will halt accepting cash as a form of payment for all services. Only credit card or checks will be accepted. For credit card payments, all surcharges will be waived until further notice to accommodate customers inconvenienced by the temporary policy, Lawson said.
“These are unprecedented times, and this is an unprecedented response, but we believe these are necessary steps to protect the health and safety of our staff and the public we serve,” said Sussex County Council President Mike Vincent. “We understand how important it is for the public to interact with our staff and utilize our services on a daily basis. But we are changing the way we do business as this crisis evolves, and we may have to change it even further in the days and weeks ahead as we all learn more about this pandemic,” Vincent said.
County offices will be staffed with a combination of employees on site, as well as others working from remote locations to limit contacts. Various steps, including social distancing and frequent facility cleanings, will continue to be employed.
Lawson said some employees are working staggered schedules with fellow employees as they switch from a day of working in the office and day working at home. With more than 500 employees, Sussex County government is among the largest employers in the county.
Health screenings for employees
While routine services and processes are being affected, and in some cases turnaround times for documents could be slowed, critical time-sensitive county functions such as 911, paramedic, sewer and water services will continue around the clock and unimpeded, Lawson said.
The county is implementing numerous additional measures to protect those critical services, including health screenings of employees at each shift change, suspending discretionary leave, and locking down facilities to only employees who work in a given department or building.
“Our 911 dispatchers will continue to answer the call, our paramedics will continue to roll out onto the streets, the wastewater plants will continue to accept and process the flows,” Vincent said. “These are vital, core services that we must guarantee at all costs to ensure the health, safety and welfare of our community.”
Because of limited person-to-person interaction, inspections of residential and commercial units, site and sewer locations, and sewer inspections will not be changed, Lawson said.
Steps taken before closing
Before limiting public access, county officials had enacted precautionary steps when offices opened for business March 16, including screening by a security guard at the front entrance of the administrative offices building. People showing signs of illness were denied entry.
“It's been a tsunami of activity since last Thursday and Friday. We went from light steps to very significant steps very quickly,” Lawson said.
Change in meeting format
The March 17 Sussex County Council meeting was changed from 10 a.m. to noon, had a condensed agenda and public attendance was restricted. County staff making presentations to council sat in the main lobby in chairs set up about 6 feet apart waiting their turn to speak. The March 16 Sussex County Board of Adjustment meeting followed the same format.
Those wanting to testify at a scheduled public hearing were screened and allowed to enter council chambers one at a time.
Lawson said officials will discuss the fate of future public meetings.
Council's next scheduled meeting is Tuesday, March 31. The planning and zoning commission is scheduled to meet Thursday, March 26.
Information on COVID-19
County officials remind the public to visit the county website at sussexcountyde.gov for the latest information on how the COVID-19 outbreak is affecting local government operations.
Delawareans with questions about COVID-19 or their exposure risk can call the Delaware Division of Public Health’s Coronavirus Call Center at 1-866-408-1899 or 711 for people who are hearing impaired from 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, or email DPHCall@delaware.gov. For the latest on Delaware’s response, visit www.de.gov/coronavirus.