One of the best things about small town Indiana is that people can normally get pretty easy access to their elected officials and government offices. With the onset of the coronavirus and attempts to stop its spread these days have stopped being normal. Access to government buildings is being limited, meetings are being held at double-arms-length and people are increasingly being told to turn to the internet or phone to take care of their public business.
This week both the Daviess County Commissioners and the Washington mayor’s office announced further restrictions for the public.
“We just shut the mayor’s office to walk-in traffic to protect people from the virus,” said Washington Mayor David Rhoads. “We hope to do as much of our business over the phone that we can. We’re still willing to answer questions.”
The mayor’s office is now following the same basic procedures the rest of the city offices are following, limiting contact with the public and encouraging limiting face-to-face contact.
“I will still take a meeting by appointment,” said Rhoads. “Our job hasn’t changed. We are still taking care of the public. My office was one of the last to take this action. I felt with the governor issuing the stay-at-home order it was time for us to take more precautions.”
No mayor ever ran on a platform of shutting off his office to the public. Rhoads is not happy that he had to take this unusual action.
“I enjoy the interaction with the public,” he said. “The same thing is happening all over the state. Until this virus slows down this is a precaution for both our employees and the public.”
While the mayor was trying to slow the foot traffic through his office the Daviess County Commissioners were trying to limit traffic through the county courthouse. The commissioners issued a directive that people would only be allowed in the courthouse for essential business.
To enforce the essential business directive, everyone has to enter the courthouse on the east side and then they are screened by Daviess County Sheriff’s Deputies who then work with the courthouse office holders and department heads to determine if it is truly essential that the person come into the courthouse.
“We’re trying to take cautious steps without overreacting,” said president of the Daviess County Commissioners Nathan Gabhart. “That is why we are restricting the access for essential business and not closing it. We are leaving some of the decision making up to the department heads. We do not want to shut off people’s access to government but we do need to limit it to what is essential. Some things can be done by phone, some over the internet, some can be put off for a couple of weeks.”
Gabhart points out that while closing the courthouse might be the best thing in the interest of not spreading potential coronavirus, closing altogether does not appear to be an option.
“Whether you agree or disagree with the action we have to lead by example,” said Gabhart. “You have to recognize the inner-workings of the courthouse. We have to abide by peoples’ rights. If someone gets arrested, we can’t just force them to sit in jail for two weeks. They need to have their initial hearing. If someone has been ordered to pay child support to the court then they have to get in and do that.”
One of the things about the coronavirus is that so much of what the city and county and state are trying to do is new to most people. Restaurants have been shut down, work is being limited to essential businesses and the changes seem to come daily while local officials look for ways to react.
“Let’s face it, in two weeks we will be used to all of this,” said Gabhart.
One of the big events for county government coming up is the primary election which has been moved back to June 2.
“Delaying events in May I thought was an overreaction,” said Gabhart. “Again, it is being done to protect both the voters and the people working the polls. I think that with the absentee voting and the technology the election should not be an issue.”
While the county may have the pending election, the city of Washington has its own major project that is beginning to ramp up. Work will hopefully begin soon on the rebuilding of Business 50 from the west city limits to Southeast Third Street.
“That is a huge project,” said Rhoads. “We have advertised to take bids and want to start in June. I don’t know how all of this will impact the Business 50 project. When that starts, we hope that everything will be back open. We will need to be back open then.”
“We are doing this to protect the public, but I wonder if we are not making the cure worse than the disease,” added Gabhart. “It feels like we live in such an over sensitized society that we are being almost forced to be over-reactive.”