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County closes offices to public

Meeting in the age of the coronavirus. Members of the Chaves County Board of Commissioners wear face masks at Thursday’s meeting at the request of local medical doctors, who gave a presentation about COVID-19. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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Chaves County leaders have decided to close offices to the public starting no later than this morning, an additional step being taken on top of other precautionary measures to stop the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new strain of coronavirus.

“We will continue to operate, but the public would not be allowed in the building except by appointment,” said County Manager Stanton Riggs. “They can make appointments. We can utilize the … drop-off box and drive-by window. They can file and get their marriage license and do the various things we need to do.”

Riggs indicated that the decision about all county offices — except the Chaves County Courthouse that will remain open for people with court business — follows the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and the Office of the Governor of New Mexico.

The action builds on other preventative measures that the county previously put in place, and was announced following a Thursday morning meeting tinted heavily by the public concern over COVID-19.

Only a small group of commissioners and presenters were allowed in commission chambers. Others sat in adjacent offices or the entrance rotunda. The commissioners heard a wide range of viewpoints about the pandemic, from local doctors who believe the situation is more dire than what most authorities think, to a state senator who sent the message that he thinks the state’s actions are infringing on people’s rights and could cause serious problems for businesses and their employees.

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County actions

Riggs said that county business will be conducted by phone and the internet as much as possible following office closures, which he said will be in effect at least until April 10. He said that people will be asked to use the drop-boxes and drive-by windows at 1 St. Mary’s Place for the Clerk’s Office and the Treasurer’s Office.

“We will not be taking cash at this point,” he added, saying that cash is considered by health experts as a way for the virus to be transmitted. For that reason, at least until April 10, payments will be accepted online, over the phone or by check or money order.

He noted that travel restrictions have been placed on employees, with exceptions for law enforcement officers. The county is also advising most employees to not travel even within the state for the time being. Paid leave is being given to employees who need to look for child care for students out of school. Otherwise, employees are expected to report to their offices for their usual hours, unless feeling ill, with meetings limited to 10 or fewer people. Citizen commissions and advisory group meetings have been canceled until further notice.

Dump sites will remain open, he said.

The courthouse will operate but will be open only to people without symptoms who need to handle court matters. The Chaves County Detention Center has been closed to visitors for a while. Probation officers will work by phone or the internet, and community service was put on hold March 13.

He noted that other counties had closed completely or had only “essential” staff report to work, but he thought that the choices made by Chaves County managers have been prudent, given that officials think the next three weeks are crucial in keeping the number of people affected by COVID-19 to as low a number as possible.

“I think we are probably ahead of the game, I hope, but who knows,” Riggs said. “But I do think it is the best way we can continue to operate.”

Views about virus impacts heard

Drs. Peter Jewell and Masoud Khorsand-Sahbaie, both of Kymera Independent Physicians medical group in Roswell, gave an hour-long presentation about COVID-19 in other countries and the United States.

They indicated their views that the situation is extremely serious for all groups of people and that Chaves County residents should take as many precautions as possible to stay healthy.

They said that, in their views, not enough is being done to protect first responders and health care providers, who should be using full face masks, goggles and gloves and should be treating people using telemedicine as much as possible and with the assumption that everyone they come in contact with has COVID-19. They also said that more tests are needed in the state and locally, and wondered why they are not available.

For people who are not first responders or health care workers, they recommended that they continue to wash their hands and use social distancing of at least 6 feet and ideally 10 feet. They said people should wear masks, gloves and glasses or goggles whenever possible, and should use disinfectants to wipe down surfaces in their home or at work and to clean packages that are shipped, or that they buy from stores.

They reminded the commissioners that no treatment has been identified yet as working in a large sample of patients.

Giving another perspective, District 32 State Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, urged local leaders to be mindful about the consequences of restrictions and closures.

“I have many concerns, especially from the state and national level,” he said.

He said that public school closures will likely result in children being cared for by grandparents and the elderly and that closures of restaurants — what he called the second leg of food delivery — is having the effect of causing crowds and close contact at grocery stores, considered one of the top locations for possible virus transmission.

“These are things that I think, although they have good intentions, have unintended consequences we are seeing,” Pirtle said. “As that moves forward, hopefully, and the county takes action, I hope that is taken into consideration. I know each and every one of you as commissioners want to make the best decisions, as do we legislators. We were kept out of this (state emergency and public health orders), as it was an emergency declaration.”

He added that he and constituents who have contacted him are concerned for people’s rights and liberties, as they are being forced to close or restrict their business functions, which is leading to employee layoffs. “Free people” should have the right to make their own decisions about whether they want to risk going to a restaurant, he said, explaining that he trusts people to make good decisions.

“To look those restaurant owners in the eyes and see the real fear they have in their eyes for their employees should give us all concern, and these decisions do have real consequences,” he said. “I hope we haven’t made these — or the governor hasn’t made — these decisions too soon and we don’t put people out of business by overreacting.”

He added that he tells the county commissioners in the three counties that he represents that decisions affecting local businesses are better made at the local level, where people have a better understanding of needs and priorities in their communities.

“Our county commissioners should be the ones who are making the decisions,” he said. “They shouldn’t be made in Santa Fe.”

County commissioners offered varied comments about the pandemic and its consequences.

Robert Corn said that he hoped the medical discussion would cause people to take the COVID-19 situation seriously. Dara Dana said that she thought the doctors’ presentations made it clear to her that the state needed to communicate and plan better and be more proactive and that people need to be more consistent with cleaning, hand washing and social distancing. She also liked the idea being suggested that people buy gift certificates at “mom and pop” local establishments so that they can use them when restrictions are lifted. Bilberry asked people to take note and be safe.

T. Calder Ezzell Jr. urged people to “stay calm and carry on,” and Will Cavin said the situation over the next few weeks could be like a “scary rollercoaster.”

“We do need to take this seriously,” Cavin said. “We do need to pay attention. We have to stay smart, act sensibly and use some common sense and we will get through this.”

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.