Citizens will not be allowed to attend the agenda-setting meeting of the Oconee County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday, but they will be able to watch via a live stream on YouTube.
Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman John Daniell announced that decision to hold the agenda-setting meeting as usual, but minus an audience, in an interview of just more than 30 minutes length via Zoom on Sunday morning.
Daniell said in the interview that the live streaming is a test for the county and, if successful, could be used for the next Town Hall meeting and to hold required hearings with the citizens on the proposed Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax–without an audience if necessary.
Daniell also expressed satisfaction with the decision to declare a county emergency that restricts citizen and business behavior but does not require citizens to shelter in place, saying that one of his concerns was that the latter would work only if it were in place for up to 18 months.
Daniell said he has relied on input from the Department of Public Health, the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, among others, in reaching that decision.
Daniell said he also talked with Oconee County Sheriff Scott Berry, who has criticized Athens-Clarke County for issuing a shelter-in-place order, but Daniell said Berry’s opposition to the shelter-in-place order was not a key part of the decision.
Daniell also said that he has held meetings with representatives of the area hospitals and learned that, at present, the hospitals are not over-extended.
Daniell said the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce hosted a conference call last week with representatives of the two area hospitals and of surrounding counties.
“The levels are manageable at this point,” Daniell said the hospitals representatives reported. “They’re not overrun.
“I think the staff is experiencing a great deal of stress just because of their environment that they’re in right now,” Daniell added. “Their main concern the last time we talked was PPE.”
Daniell was referring to Personal Protective Equipment, and he said the state has been receiving those supplies into its warehouses and these should “help relieve some of the concern there.
“And also I think a lot of people are starting to make those masks and other things at home to help in that way,” Daniell continued.
“There are a lot of unknowns,” Daniell said, “and I think they are putting in a lot of long hours.”
Some healthcare workers are also being furloughed, if they are not in essential services, according to Daniell. (Daniell specified on 3/30 that these furloughed healthcare workers were not at hospitals.)
“I know this hitting is not just restaurant workers,” Daniell said. “It is hitting the medical community as well.”
I emailed Daniell late last Thursday and asked him if he would be willing to do an interview on the county’s response to COVID-19.
I reminded him that I am immunocompromised and over 70 (I’m actually nearly 72) and could not do the interview in person (consistent with the county’s emergency order, but also with my own desires).
Daniell agreed on Friday to do the interview at 10 a.m. today via Zoom from his home at 1922 Elder Road in the west of the county. I was at my home at 1050 Scott Terrace off Daniells Bridge Road.
We used Zoom to record the interview, and the video is embedded below.
The interview lasted a little less than 35 minutes and followed a set of questions I had prepared in advance but had not shared with Daniell.
Beginning Of Interview
Daniell told me as we began the interview that he has four family members in the high risk group and that he and his other family members are caring for them and that his younger children are going “stir crazy” staying in the house while schools are closed.
He said he is going to the office as usual, and that most of the county employees in the Courthouse also are in their offices, appropriately spaced to comply with the distancing requirement.
Daniell said citizens cannot enter the Courthouse at present without a pre-arranged escort.
I asked Daniell what he observed as he drives around the county, and he said “I think there’s been really substantial compliance with most of the citizens in Oconee County.”
He said three restaurants had not complied with the requirement that they only provide drive-through service, but he thinks by the end of the day on Friday all were “in line.”
Shelter In Place Decision
“The shelter in place order, I don’t think, is necessary in our community right now,” Daniell said, “because we’re gaining substantial compliance.”
“And the folks that would not respond to that, what do you actually do with them if they don’t?” he asked.
“I think education and compliance is our goal,” he added.
Daniell also said he didn’t think a shelter in place ordinance was effective unless done statewide or at least regionally.
“Even if you were to achieve that (shelter in place) for three months,” Daniell said, studies have shown that “as soon as you lift the restrictions you’re going to have another spike.”
“Unless you’re willing to have this social distancing and shut down restaurants and all of that for possibly up to 18 months to get a vaccine that’s in production and produced, I’m not really sure that sustainable not just economically, but just people’s ability to live like that.”
Offers Of Help
Daniell said citizens who see violations of the restrictions on restaurants should call the Environmental Health Department on Experiment Station Road.
He said the county expanded its Meals on Wheels delivery when it closed the Senior Center at Oconee Veterans Park.
The Sheriff’s Office also has offered to help needy people, he said.
“The response of this community is unparalleled with other communities around,” Daniell said.
“We’re following the guidelines as they’re put out,” he said. “We’ve got people that are offering to help others that are in need.”
“There’s been a big outpouring from the community to help people,” he said.
Daniell said he is not overly concerned at present about the economic impact of the closures in the county because of COVID-19.
“It depends on how long this lasts,” he said. “It’s not the end of the world. There’s definitely going to be some rough roads the next couple of months.”
“As far as county income,” he said, “we’re going to be fine through the fiscal year, but we’ll have to be very careful with forecasting for the next fiscal year.”
Earlier in the interview, Daniell had said he was focusing on data comparing COVID-19 with the normal flu season.
“We’re hoping this outbreak would be no worse than a normal flu season,” he said. That “would be the goal.”
“Keep everybody in your prayers,” Daniell said at the end of the interview. “Keep doing what we’re doing.
“When you see somebody or some restaurant that’s not acting right or some group,” he added. “Let us know and we’ll do what we can to help.”
Daniell had told me in a phone conversation last week setting up the interview that the county was planning to live stream the session on Tuesday, and I asked him for details near the end of the interview.
Daniell said some of those details were incomplete but that no citizens would be allowed to attend, that he and the other three commissioners and staff would be present, and that Michael Prochaska, editor of The Oconee Enterprise, and I are welcome to attend.
I told him that I would not attend but that Sarah Bell has said she will attend and video record the session for me.
The county video records its Commission meetings via a camera mounted in the ceiling of the Commission Chamber, but it has not live streamed the sessions in the past.
Daniell said the session on Tuesday will be an experiment and, if successful, will be used for upcoming meetings while gatherings are prohibited and perhaps as a routine in the future.
Daniell said the Commission needed to meet to deal with planned bond sales to refinance debt for purchase and construction of Oconee Veterans Park.
At its March 3 meeting, the Board authorized Daniell to sign a refinance rate term sheet setting a minimum of $450,000 minimum bond savings for the refinancing of the remaining $7.6 million in bond debt for the park.
The agenda also includes Board ratification of the Emergency Management Order Daniell signed on Thursday but does not include consideration of a request that the Board declare Oconee County A Second Amendment Sanctuary.
Diane Baggett, Diane Baggett, communications manager for the county, sent out two email messages just before and after noon today with details on the live streamed meeting on Tuesday.
The meeting will be the Oconee County Government YouTube Channel, she wrote.
“The meeting will be open to local journalists, but will have no other public access to the physical meeting space,” she wrote.
“The number of people in the room will be limited to 10 and appropriate social distancing will be maintained at all times.”
“The public is invited to watch the meeting via livestream or to watch the recording at a later time, she wrote.
The link for the live stream is HERE.
Daniell told me in the interview that he felt it was necessary for the Board itself to be present to allow for proper discussion. He said conference calls are too limited for the purposes.
The video below, produced by the Zoom software, is of the entire interview.
My presentation above follows the flow of the interview with a few exceptions.
I asked Daniell about the decision not to issue a shelter in place order at 4:48 in the video.
The question that led to Daniell’s observations about the area hospitals is at 18:01.
I asked Daniell about the Tuesday Commission meeting at 24:08 in the video.
I highly recommend watching the video from front to back.