Monday, July 6, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

Travis County continues moving forward with its phased reopening plan

Unlike the city of Austin, Travis County will not need to revise its return-to-work strategy. The county approached its return-to-work plan with an eye toward flexibility and no date certain for reopening. As a result, county facilities are plowing ahead with the original plan to reopen incrementally, with a focus on essential positions and considerations for a permanent telecommuting strategy.

“The approach that we’re taking now is very incremental and very careful,” Eric Stockton, from the Technology and Operations Department, told the Commissioners Court on June 30. “The things that have been restored in the past few weeks are very limited.”

He clarified for the court that the county has the ability to pull back on reopening its facilities at any point, based on the Covid-19 case count in the community and recommendations from Austin Public Health.

So far the county services that have restarted limited operations with in-person interactions include civil and criminal courts, Justice of the Peace precincts 1-5, Tax Office drive-thru and lobby appointments, and the County Clerk and elections. These functions, Stockton explained, are essential for the county to fulfill its legal mandates to the public.

“Essential” county services will be the next category of services to return to the physical workplace, followed by functions that “enhance residents’ quality of life.”

In the long term, the majority of the county’s office-bound functions will continue to be performed remotely. “If there is a remote service or a teleworking activity that is occurring currently, our goal is to keep it in place,” Stockton said. In May, the Commissioners Court directed staff to develop a plan that incorporates telecommuting as a long-term work strategy for 75 percent of the 3,000 eligible county employees.

Commissioners expressed their desire that the county strive to provide adequate protection for employees who cannot telecommute to their jobs.

“We’re looking at all options to make sure we have everything that’s needed,” Stockton said. He said the county has sufficient personal protective equipment for employees who need to come on-site, and his department is running burn-rate projections to ensure that purchasing is routinely ahead of a shortfall in protective equipment. Similarly, face coverings are required for all county employees as well as all visitors entering Travis County buildings. Conference rooms will have safety provisions, including a limit of 10 attendees with a required 6 feet of distance between people.

Stockton clarified that there are mask exceptions allowed for employees who work independently in offices with closed doors.

Although the majority of county functions remain outside physical buildings, county spokesperson Hector Nieto told the Austin Monitor that county services are still operational and available through alternative methods, such as online portals and telephonic communications.

Stockton concluded that staff members are keeping an eye on the progression of the pandemic in the community and will make decisions on reopening accordingly. He said, “Hopefully, in the coming weeks we’ll have a much clearer picture of things that need to be restored.”

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