As COVID-19 accelerates its spread in North Carolina, local governments accustomed to emergencies like hurricanes and floods find themselves dealing with a new threat that often requires a hyperlocal response.
They have lots of questions. And more than 1,800 county and municipal officials from 56 of North Carolina’s 100 counties tuned in for answers at two free webinars offered Wednesday by experts at the School of Government. Faculty members Norma Houston, Diane Juffras and Jill Moore hosted back-to-back 2.5-hour sessions of Coronavirus in the Workplace and the Community: A Primer for NC Local Governments. On Thursday, joined by two more faculty members, they hosted a pandemic-themed office hours conversation via Zoom, which reached the 300 participant cut-off.
After both the president and governor declared states of emergency because of COVID-19, local officials flooded the school’s email inboxes and phone lines seeking advice, Houston said. Faculty gave interpretations of state and federal law, shared best practices and sample policies, and explained terms like “quarantine” and “social distancing” through posts to Coates’ Canons, a blog about local government law in North Carolina, and through an extensive School of Government listserv of thousands of local officials and staff members.
The school also set up a COVID-19 microsite and scheduled a webinar for March 24 to deal with the most common issues. But as the situation rapidly evolved, they decided to move the webinar up a week and to waive the usual registration fee.
“We do webinars pretty routinely at the School of Government, but this is the first time we’ve done one in a pandemic,” Houston said. “We’re getting so many questions because this is such uncharted territory.”
A lecturer in public law and government, Houston is an expert in emergency management law and an adviser to the North Carolina Office of Resiliency and Recovery. Juffras, a professor of public law and government, specializes in public employment law. She’s also the author of “Are You Prepared? Legal Issues Facing North Carolina Public Employers in Disasters and Other Emergencies.” Moore, an associate professor, maintains a website devoted to North Carolina public health law and wrote the book, “North Carolina Communicable Disease Law.”
The trio took turns presenting during the webinar. Moore began with an overview of the virus and its development, then delved into public health law about who are mandatory reporters (primarily doctors and laboratories) and what happens if someone violates a quarantine or isolation order (class 1 misdemeanor).
She updated as she went. “When I prepared these slides on Sunday, I had a particular script for them which I have since abandoned,” she said. “They’ve become a little outdated. Sunday was three days ago, and pandemic days have turned out to be far longer than normal days.”
Houston focused on FEMA requirements and what governments can or can’t do in a state of emergency. She mentioned actions taken by coastal Dare County, which barred visitors from entry, and Mecklenburg County, which ordered the closure of all gyms, health clubs and movie theaters and may require its citizens to shelter in place.
“What feels different in this situation is that the local health director has a more prominent role,” Houston said. The health director is the “technical lead” in a public health crisis much as the National Weather Service is the technical lead during a hurricane. “Local and state health officials provide guidance on public health measures, and emergency management takes the lead in coordinating that response.”
Juffras concluded the webinar with insights into how the pandemic affects employers and employees, like determining who can work from home, who qualifies for family medical leave and what to do if an employee is sick and exposes coworkers to the virus.
There are even rules for taking an employee’s temperature.
“Employers may take the temperature of all employees reporting to work in a pandemic situation,” she said. Temperature taking is usually not allowed, but because the CDC has said that there is now “community spread” of COVID-19, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has interpreted its rules to allow it.
That EEOC guidance was updated March 18, the day of the webinar. That’s how on top of their topics these experts are.
But the COVID-19 situation is changing so quickly that advice and recommendations seem to come with their own “use by” dates. The webinar presenters repeatedly noted that what they said was accurate as of March 18, sometimes even adding the time of day.
That’s why they’ll continue to post updates to their blogs and the microsite and to forward information through their listservs.
Faculty are preparing to host topic-specific live calls via Zoom in the coming days because of the high demand from officials.
They may even host another webinar.
The on-demand version of the March 18 coronavirus webinar is available to local officials through the School of Government’s website.