REED CITY -- The Osceola County Board of Commissioners approved a COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Plan, and the phased reopening of county buildings beginning Friday.

"We are required to have a policy in place that addresses the procedures for returning employees to work and slowly phasing the public back into county buildings," Vander Pol told the board at its recent meeting.

Some of the protocols being put into place include, screening employees and the public and taking temperatures as they enter the building.

As part of the screening process, employees and visitors will be asked to affirm that in the last 24 hours they have not had an atypical cough, shortness of breath, fever, chills, muscle pain or headache.

If they answer yes to any of those symptoms, they will not be permitted access to the building.

Currently, the public is allowed into the buildings by appointment only, and they are screened before entering, Vander Pol said.

"They are asked if they have been around anyone that has been ill, if they have had any symptoms of illness, if they have been exposed to the coronavirus," Vander Pol said, "If they answer 'no' to all the questions, whoever they are there to see will escort them to the office and provide services using the social distancing protocols. As the departments get up and running, they can continue to follow those same procedures."

Additional safety protocols include providing personal protection equipment (PPE) for employees considered necessary to do their job, including gloves, masks, goggles, face shields and sanitizing products.

In addition, the policy calls for the implementation of social distancing with a six-foot space between employees, or between employees and visitors, as well as enhanced hygiene and disinfecting procedures.

"We are advising all employees to clean and disinfect their work stations regularly, wash hands frequently and not share tools or equipment," Vander Pol said. "In addition, we are asking that anyone using the copier do so without touching anything, but rather, use the stylus instead."

Some departments have already installed plexi-glass screens between the employee and the public, and additional screens will be added as needed, Vander Pol added.

The policy will require anyone from the public entering the building to wear a facemask.

Vander Pol told the BOC that DK Security, the security company that normally provides services for the courthouse building, would be available to start back again anytime, and that they are willing to provide additional personnel needed to conduct screening of employees and the public.

"Security personnel can go through the screening process with anyone coming into the building," Vander Pol said.

Vander Pol recommended a target date of June 1 for implementation of the policy and beginning allowing the public back into county buildings in order to allow time to purchase and install additional plexi-glass partitions and to allow department heads to make sure they have the needed PPE equipment.

"We need time to get better prepared to serve the public again," Vander Pol said. "Part of the policy will be to encourage both employees and the public to continue to conduct as much business as possible remotely, using online permit applications, email, fax or regular mail. Anything that can be done remotely is still strongly encouraged."

BOC chairman Jack Nehmer suggested it would probably be at least a month before they will be able to allow the public to begin coming into the buildings again.

"I would like to have time to get ready and get all the equipment on hand," Nehmer said. "By the next BOC meeting, May 18, maybe we can start to gradually bring the employees in so that when we do open to the public, we are ready."

As part of the phased reopening, commissioners approved the purchase of personal protection equipment (PPE) for use by county employees as needed.

In other business, the BOC approved a motion to waive the "no payment for vacation not taken" portion of the county vacation policy during the COVID-19 Stay Home Stay Safe period, and allow employees unused vacation time be available until their next anniversary.

BOC member Mark Gregory, who made the motion, told the board he did not feel it was fair for employees to lose vacation time because of something they had no control over.

"Given the state of emergency, how can we expect people to truly take a vacation," Gregory said. "It is of no cost to the county because they have already earned it, and it's the right thing to do," he added.

Nehmer added, "The employee had nothing to do with losing their time, and I don't think they should lose it. We should waive the policy and let them carry it over."

The BOC also approved a motion to suspend posting and filling of vacant positions without a review by the board and confirmation of immediate need, to help mitigate the impact of revenue losses due to COVID-19.

"For some time, the board has had a hiring freeze that addressed new positions because we knew the budget would be tight," Vander Pol said. "What this motion will do is extend that to positions that become vacant during the coronavirus pandemic. This will address the reduced revenues possibly due to the economic slowdown of the last months."

According to the policy, any position recommended to be filled must be approved by the board, and every effort should be made by department heads to combine positions, reassign employees or reduce services as necessary.