County courthouse, other buildings remain off-limits to the public

Robert Smith

Osage County commissioners decided Monday to keep the county courthouse in Pawhuska closed to the general public, along with other county owned buildings.

The commissioners also decided to continue canceling/postponing all public events that were scheduled to take place on county owned property. The county board stopped short, however, of closing county buildings to all employees except those deemed “essential.” Instead, the board decided to work with county offices on a case-by-case basis to see how much they can limit the presence of employees in county buildings.

The commissioners took these steps as Osage County continues to try to slow the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus. Nationwide, as of Monday evening, the virus had claimed more than 3,000 lives. In Osage County on Monday, there had been 11 positive tests for COVID-19, but no deaths. Statewide, there had been 481 positive tests and 17 deaths.

Associate District Judge Stuart Tate on Monday told the commissioners that based on guidance from the Oklahoma Supreme Court and the state Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s courts had been shut down in all 77 counties except for emergency matters. He indicated the intent is for any emergency matters to be handled via electronic means, rather than having any in-person gatherings.

District 1 Commissioner said county road employees were attempting to continue making progress on work assignments without having personal contact with one another. He spoke of employees sheltering individually on pieces of equipment they operate.

The commissioners talked with heads of some government departments about how they’re arranging, or might begin to arrange, for smaller groups of employees to be present in their offices, rather than having all staff members present at any one time. Assessor Ed Quinton Jr. said one employee of his office who had been ill turned out to have a digestive system sickness rather than COVID-19. Quinton indicated he was having most of his office’s work done off-site, electronically, but with some employees going to the courthouse to take care of tasks such as picking up mail.

County Clerk Shelia Bellamy said she told employees who were allowed to shelter at home that they were on-call to respond if necessary.

Sheriff Eddie Virden told the Journal-Capital by phone last Friday that he is supportive of closing county buildings even to most employees, as an element of a general tightening of social distancing measures to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Virden said he has implemented distancing measures in his department’s operations, attempting to prevent the virus from being able to move between different groups of employees. Virden said the morning of March 27 that none of his employees had tested positive, to date, but one had called in and complained of running a fever.

Virden also said he had been talking by phone to state officials, encouraging the development of a plan to make National Guard troops available to help county sheriffs if COVID-19 were to infect large numbers of sheriff’s department and county jail employees.

Quinton told the Journal-Capital last Friday that his office is getting its tasks done and keeping its employees busy, even though most of them are working from home. He noted that he is personally aware of someone — not one of his employees — who has tested positive for the virus and it has impacted his thinking.

“I feel like you can’t take it back,” he said, referring to the seriousness of the risk of keeping people at work together in offices where the virus might be transmitted. Quinton said he thinks county buildings should be closed to most employees.

“I believe that it should be closed,” he said, speaking of the courthouse. “The governor said it should be closed. He said all non-essential business.”

Quinton said the investments his office has made in technology.have made it possible for his employees to shelter at home and still serve the public.