How the City of Oak Ridge is preparing for and responding to coronavirus (COVID-19)
OAK RIDGE, Tenn. (March 23, 2020) – Oak Ridge city leaders took actions Monday to adopt and implement Tennessee Governor Bill Lee’s latest executive order on coronavirus, or COVID-19, and several other steps being taken to protect Oak Ridgers.
Effective today, Executive Order 17 calls for businesses across the state to utilize alternative business models until April 6, 2020. The order also outlines ways businesses and citizens should work to protect vulnerable populations.
At the meeting, city councilmembers approved a resolution to declare a local state of emergency due to the novel coronavirus in order to help prevent the spread of it. This follows in line with state and national declarations. It is a 7-day, renewable executive order that gives Mayor Warren Gooch the authority to extend it further, if necessary. Given the resolution was submitted last week, the version approved Monday included amendments to the number of cases and the addition of the Governor’s Executive Order.
“We appreciate your patience,” Mayor Warren Gooch said. “We are clearly dealing with a difficult situation in our country and locally. Today, we took up measures that we think will protect Oak Ridgers.”
In addition, City Manager Mark Watson presented a resolution regarding emergency leave for city employees, which was approved.
“It’s a strange and interesting time to deal with these issues,” Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson said. “We’ve made changes in operations to be prepared for future actions.”
This approval will allow city employees access to emergency leave in the case that they need to be off work and/or in quarantine due to coronavirus. City Council also approved Watson’s request for funding for essential employees to be able to stay at several local hotels in order to be in the city during this time. This is for city employees who have no illness but need to stay in the city for their job.
COVID-19 is also expected to have an impact on city utilities. Electric director Jack Suggs said his department is working with Tennessee Valley Authority to get some funding to be able to stop utility disconnects for the immediate future. This means if a citizen is unable to pay their bill during this time, their services won’t be cut off. However, bills for this service will continue to accrue and the city will be flexible in terms of repayment.
Suggs said utilities would be able to work with people to help them get back on their feet.
“We expect this is going to be very, very hard on people,” Suggs said.
Instead of disconnect notices, a citizen who doesn’t pay their entire bill on time will receive a letter to let them know that their bills are adding up. The letter is to serve as a reminder that they can pay whatever they can afford now so they won’t have as much to pay at the end.
Suggs also said services like the ‘Aid To Distressed Families of Appalachian Counties’, or ADFAC, are available for folks in need. ADFAC can be reached at (865) 483-6028 for utilities or rent assistance.
The City Manager and senior staff have been working hard to ensure that everyone is prepared. Fire staff and first responders are taking protective actions and standardizing response between ambulances and the fire department. Leaders are in touch with Methodist Medical and paying close attention to the number of beds available.
Many have expressed concerns over testing in the area and whether there will be an order requiring people to stay home. An official ‘shelter at home’ order would need to come from the county health department, meaning the Roane County Health Department and Anderson County Health Department. The City of Oak Ridge is doing everything it can to protect its citizens and while it may not be able to issue an order, leaders can make strong recommendations to urge people to stay home, especially if they are sick.
“We will continue to move forward and monitor all circumstances and situations,” Gooch said. “If we all work together, and I’m confident that we will, we will hopefully be able to reduce the number of tough days going forward.”
Due to the Center for Disease Control advisory and Executive Order 17 that limits gatherings of ten or more individuals, Monday’s meeting was held with essential personnel only and electronically, for city leaders to call in. It aired on Comcast Channel 12 and was streamed on the city website for the public, where it is now posted.
The next regularly scheduled meeting is Monday, April 13. Future meetings and special sessions will be conducted electronically for as long as necessary.