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Guest Column: Factors surrounding reopening City Hall

Guest Column by Ian Rigg

The city of Albert Lea has been closed to non-appointment access for a year. Given the definition of close contact and the quarantine protocols, it was deemed unfeasible to have full staffing at one time in the same work spaces when alternatives were available. Our biggest concern was staff infecting other staff due to close proximity and CDC recommended 10- to 14-day quarantines, creating a crippling level event for a department or service. Closure to public access allowed the city to better utilize work from home options to increase space and reduce close contact potential.

Ian Rigg

As vaccines are being distributed at a far greater rate than previously, there being new CDC guidelines that change quarantining protocols for those vaccinated, case numbers with severity have declined and exhaustion regarding closures long settled in, we are beginning to reopen more of our facilities and services to the public.

Starting March 30, every Tuesday and Wednesday, City Hall will be open from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. This opening has some limits. The public may come in without an appointment for all transactions that take less than 15 minutes at the finance or building inspector windows. It is encouraged for people to still use their previous means of bill payment and communication as they have the last year when possible to reduce crowding. All other needs that may take longer than 15 minutes will still require an appointment.

Main services intended to be readily available for walk-ins are:

• Building permit submissions, requests or brief questions.

• Utility bills and account services.

• Submittal of forms and packets.

The library will be open these same times for express browsing by appointment.  Given the ability to wander in a library and vaccination numbers still being too low for public immunity, we limited access by appointment with five 30-minute time allotments and one 30-minute allotment at the Children’s Library. Because of the time allotment, it is absolutely important to arrive on time (less than five minutes before or after appointment time) at the Clark Street entrance and enter from the top floor access. If you are late, you must reschedule so as to not interfere with future appointment arrivals.

Social distancing and mask requirements are mandatory to remain in any city building. No loitering in public spaces within city buildings shall be allowed. If symptom-free please come in and complete your intended task. People who fail to comply will be asked to leave. As more staff become vaccinated, the threat of an operational quarantine becomes less and less. As we achieve this, more will be reopened such as sit-down services or programs, greater access to city facilities and more. 

To save money in anticipation of some revenue losses, the city furloughed many staff members as we restricted services in 2020. The city now has to rehire or replace lost staffing levels in order to come back fully. To avoid a waste of taxpayer money, this process was delayed until we saw signs of being able reopen. If the pandemic worsened from this winter, did not improve or vaccines were not coming out at the current rate, operating within our budgetary estimate of April 1 would have wasted resources even if still in budget. As an example, the library laid off 10 people and only three are able to come back by March 30. If we were to plan on full opening April 1 as budgeted, we would have had to train and guarantee hours to new employees who would potentially then sit and wait if there were no improvements regarding the pandemic.

Our reopening may not look exactly the same as our operations did in 2019 as a result of changing expectations in employees, customers and adaption of new technology. This is being seen all over the country and in many different sectors of business or government. Options like curbside book collection, virtual meetings/demonstrations/instructions and more may become part of the new service expectation. Over the next two years, services and programs will change meeting these new demands in customer service and patron expectations. We simply do not know fully what the future will hold for operations, but we are doing our best to remain flexible to these changes.

If current trends were to hold this spring, I suspect full reopening in the next two months as long as the data supports taking this action and staffing levels are able to be restored.

Ian Rigg is the Albert Lea city manager.