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Coronavirus: County Directs Residents to Online Services

Cumberland County, Ark., is limiting public access to county facilities, with many offices closed. Residents are being directed to phone numbers, email addresses and Web pages to conduct business with the county staff.

by John Henderson, The Fayetteville Observer / March 23, 2020
Shutterstock/Song_about_summer

(TNS) — The days of walking into Fayetteville, Ark., City Hall and paying a bill, getting a permit or chewing the fat with a city employee are about over — at least for a while.

Within days, face-to-face interaction between the public and City Hall employees will be suspended as the result of the coronavirus threat, city officials said Friday.

Cumberland County, Ark., also on Friday began limiting public access to county facilities, with many offices closed. Customers are being directed to telephone numbers, email addresses and web pages to conduct business with the county staff.

"Our goal is to provide the best customer service possible, while limiting the exposure of our workforce and (not) contributing to the potential spread of this virus," said County Manager Amy Cannon in a prepared statement.

The city is implementing sweeping changes in how it does business to reduce staff interaction with the public to help reduce the risk of virus transmission.

The city has implemented on a multifaceted plan that involves using the internet, social media, drop-off boxes, phone calls and video conferencing for residents to do everything from pay bills to express their views to City Council members.

Public access to City Hall is being limited, and residents are encouraged to call or do business with the city online.

Starting next week, many of the city's more than 1,600 employees will start working from home using their computers instead of coming into City Hall, City Manager Doug Hewett said Friday.

"I've made all the departments identify those employees and functions that can be handled remotely via teleworking," Hewett said. "My request is on Monday we would start doing that, testing it out in all the departments. Sadly, it is my belief that we'll get to a point where the majority of our staff may have to telework in the very near future, and we want to make sure we test all those connections."

Hewett said the city's information technology department "has just been amazing in trying to make sure we have that capability — deploying laptops where we don't have them, creating virtual private networks."

Development Services employees are now meeting with walk-in customers in the Cape Fear Conference Room at the front of City Hall. Staff members from the planning, zoning and building offices are meeting with customers who cannot complete tasks online or by phone. The conference room holds four customers at a time.

"We have tried to do that to minimize the amount of exposure that people coming into the interior of the office space (has with employees)," Hewett said.

But he said the face-to-face interaction could end next week, as the city is considering a system in which residents drop off a paper application in a box at City Hall.

"Staff could retrieve it, and then we would call them and transact the permit business either telephonically or via email," Hewett said.

Several public hearings are scheduled during Monday night's City Council meeting, but the city has asked that residents give input without going to the council chambers and commenting in person.

Comments can submitted in advance by writing to the city clerk by 5 p.m. the day of the meeting. They should be made online at FayettevilleNC.gov/publichearingform or by calling 433-1312 for assistance.

Residents can also submit comments by phone by leaving a message as long as three minutes at 910-433-1312. The message will be played back at the meeting.

Teleconferencing equipment has been installed in the Lafayette Conference Room, where people in quasijudicial hearings before the council will be sworn in. Their testimony will be broadcast across the hall in the City Council chambers.

Each day, the city staff will inform the public about the latest news on how each department is dealing with the coronavirus threat at fayettevillenc.gov/covid19. Specific details about how to reach each department are posted on that site.

City Communications Director Kevin Arata said the page had 3,700 views last week.

In Cumberland County, the detailed cancellations web page is co.cumberland.nc.us/covid19closures. All departments are adhering to social-distancing guidelines, and anyone who is sick or showing symptoms of COVID-19 is asked not to enter a county facility, according to a news release.

Staff members are available to assist residents by phone or email even though the doors to many county offices are closed to the public, the release says.

©2020 The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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