GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The Grand Rapids City Commission moved Tuesday to give the city manager emergency purchasing power amid widespread coronavirus shutdowns.
The commission is also expected to cancel its March 31 meeting. It will vote on both matters at its Tuesday evening meeting.
The city manager is usually allowed to spend $10,000 without consulting the commission. With emergency power, that would increase that to $200,000.
“This is actually an issue that we had previously identified, which is the manager’s ability to continue operations in the case where there may be a delay in the ability to make commission decisions,” Assistant City Manager Doug Matthews explained to commissioners at their morning meeting. “What this does is give the manager under emergency conditions the ability to authorize expenditures for the continuity of operations to ensure that there aren’t interrupts in service with a ratification by the commission at the next available meeting.”
The March 31 city commission meeting will move to April 14. The city is looking into what it will do if social distancing mandates remain in effect then. Some communities have talked about holding virtual meetings, where officials and the public could log in to watch discussion and votes. But that could run afoul of the state’s Open Meetings Act.
“We’re still thinking about how that would look, but that’s a conversation we’ve started this week,” Matthews said.
Additionally, effective Tuesday, the city has closed many buildings to walk-ins and moved essential face-to-face business is by appointment only. You can call 311 or 616.456.3000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to set up an appointment. Online bill pay is encouraged.
“Approximately 80% of our payments come in through electronic processing already,” Deputy City Manager Eric DeLong pointed out.
The city will also suspend water shutoffs until April 30. Accounts that have been shut off are being restored.
OFFICIALS: LACK OF TESTS AND GEAR
The proposals came after the commission was briefed on the local coronavirus situation by emergency and health officials.
Allison Farole, Grand Rapids’ emergency management administrator, said that personal protection equipment — like gloves, masks and medical gowns — is in short supply for emergency responders. She said the city is keeping in contact with the state to get its hands on those items.
Kent County Administrative Health Officer Adam London said the health department is working to start more drive-up sample collection sites to expand testing. Spectrum Health has already set one of those sites up. The challenge so far, he said, has been a limited number of test kits and personal protection equipment.
“We have some encouragement that we’re going to be receiving a large delivery from the federal government of PPE and other supplies that will be helpful to us. We should be receiving that in the next couple of days. Once that happens, that will empower us to do more testing,” London said.
“We want to work carefully with our physicians to make sure that we have good screening protocols in place so that we don’t create a free-for-all,” he added.
He said the health department has put a nurse on call to field calls from law enforcement about possible coronavirus issues, and it working with homeless shelters to keep that population informed and limit risk there.
Kent County has recorded five confirmed cases of coronavirus.
“But I want to put a big asterisk on that because we know full well that there are far more cases in Kent County than those five. We know that there are many people who are either asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic that have this,” London told commissioners, noting that testing criteria is rigid because the number of test kits is limited.
Most people who contract coronavirus have mild symptoms. For some, including the elderly and those with preexisting conditions, it can be more serious and require hospitalization. The problem is that because the virus can spread so quickly, the small percentage of severe cases can become unmanageable.
London called executive orders from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to increase social distancing “spot on” and urged residents to follow them.
“Stay at home, wash your hands, avoid others, especially if you’re sick,” London reiterated. “It’s in the power of our community to do these things now.”
The goal, he explained, is to “flatten the curve” — slow the spread of the virus so hospitals can handle the load.
“That’s really important that we do flatten that curve,” London said. “…The key here is that we slow this outbreak down as much as possible and we don’t overwhelm our very limited health care facilities here in West Michigan or anywhere else.”
The city commission was abiding by those social distancing guidelines, with individual chairs dotted around the room, each several feet apart.
WHAT GRAND RAPIDS IS DOING TO SLOW THE SPREAD
Other moves the city has made include:
- Canceling a March 19 Board of Zoning Appeals meeting and a March 26 Planning Commission meeting, and postponing nonessential board and commission meetings and public engagement meetings.
- Suspending all permitted special events with more than 50 attendees.
- Suspending certain interior residential inspections for code, water and lead remediation. An exception is being granted for emergency like floods or electricity problems.
- Limiting cemetery services to less than 50 people (required by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order).
- Encouraging city workers to telecommute and allowing them to use sick time to care for children amid school closures.
Many city services are still up and running:
- 311 Customer Service (Recommended as first place to contact)
- Building inspections
- Construction inspections
- Code enforcement
- Mobile GR-Parking Services
- Public Works
- Refuse and recycling
- Street lighting
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