Beginning on Tuesday, June 30, Sussex County Council chambers will reopen for meetings and public hearings, although those who prefer not to attend can still participate by conference call.
County Administrator Todd Lawson made that announcement during the Tuesday, June 23, County Council meeting, during his report about reopening following closures in March due to the coronavirus.
During council meetings, only the five county council members will be permitted to sit on the dais, and they will be positioned 6 feet apart. All staff will be seated on the main floor area.
Members of the public entering the building will undergo the normal security checks, but will now also have their temperatures taken and be asked a series of questions to determine if they have symptoms of the coronavirus. They must wear masks.
The pew-style benches used for seating in the council chamber will have yellow stickers on the back of each bench, indicating seating. Security will escort visitors into the chamber, and they will be required to remain seated at the assigned location.
Lawson said about 30 people, spaced 6 feet apart, will fit in the chamber. Family members or those arriving as a party may remain together, but must remain 6 feet from others.
If an event, such as a public hearing, attracts more than 30 people, the additional attendees will wait in the lobby.
Those who arrive to testify at a public hearing will be asked to leave after they speak, so others may enter. Once a public hearing concludes, everyone involved will be asked to leave so those attending the next hearing may come in.
Lawson said Gov. John Carney ‘s state of emergency declaration requires a conference line to remain available for those who wish to participate remotely. Information about how to log in to the conference line will be published on the county’s website at www.sussexcountyde.gov.
Only public hearings expected to draw small crowds will be immediately scheduled. Those that will likely attract large groups — and Lawson said 100 or more have been known to crowd in for controversial matters — will be delayed.
“Once we do start opening and having the first public hearings, we need to talk about the backlog of public hearings and how Council wants to start to address that backlog,” Lawson said, suggesting possibly meeting more often.
Concerning permits, he said any number of requests may be dropped off at the Sussex County Administrative Office Building, but only three will be allowed to be processed at a time, while customers wait at the counter.
“We need to move away from open-ended office settings where people can walk in and interrupt what staff is doing, so we can have a more systematic approach,” Lawson said.
Councilman I.G. Burton asked about leaving records open for written comment a few days after a hearing.
County Attorney J. Everett Moore said the council may offer that, but suggested it be on a case-by-case basis. Moore said it should be left open for both applicants and opponents to give written comment within three days of a hearing before the record is closed, although he wanted to research the matter before a decision is finalized.
Replying to a question from Councilman Samuel Wilson, Lawson explained that cash has not accepted in recent months due to concerns about spreading the coronavirus, but both cash and checks may be used as payment to the County beginning next week.
Wilson said he had heard from a doctor that the virus is not carried on paper money and that constituents have complained about having their cash refused and having to leave the building to retrieve a credit card.
“Mr. Lawson, you can hand me all the cash money you want. Doesn’t matter. I’ll take it,” Wilson said.
“There you go,” County Council President Michael Vincent said, with a slight laugh.
Vincent said meetings will be “a little clunky” beginning next week because there will be participation by those attending in person and also by conference call.
“There will be delays, but we will get through it,” Vincent said.
“The county is opening the Administration Building on a limited basis and conducting business in a new fashion,” Lawson said, explaining that a new wall in the lobby will prevent the public from walking right in immediately after passing security.
If there is an overflow of customers, five can wait in the lobby, with others being asked to remain outdoors until called to come inside.
- The Constable’s Office, and Economic Development and Engineering offices will remain closed.
- The Sheriff’s Office is closed, and sheriff sales are on hold.
- The Engineering Utilities office will be open by appointment only.
- County libraries will remain closed, but curbside service and free Wi-Fi hotspots outside the library buildings will continue to be offered.
- There will be limited access to the Marriage Bureau.
- Payments and Collections will be open, with payments accepted through a walk-up window in the lobby. No wellness screenings will be required.
- Planning & Zoning will be open by appointment, with documents being dropped off in the lobby.
- The Register of Wills will be closed and accessible by appointment only.
- The County’s West Complex is closed to the public, but employees are inside working, Lawson said.