“Steve, we hear you. Can you hear us?”
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect the state, the Jefferson County Commission continues to hold its meetings via videoconference, shown live on Facebook.
Sometimes it takes a little while for everyone to get online, as when Commission President Jimmie Stephens was trying to get through to Commissioner Steve Ammons before the meeting began Thursday morning. But they do eventually get together, as they did today for a meeting dominated by the pandemic and its effects on the county. The agenda of regular business filled just a handful of pages thanks to the shutdown of nearly all government functions.
The only item of new business was approval to use the former Salvation Army facility in the northern part of downtown Birmingham as a place for homeless people who test positive for COVID-19 to stay. The facility would be used on an as-needed basis.
“We’ll use that so that we can remove those people from the homeless population, so they won’t infect the others around them,” Stephens told BirminghamWatch. “It’s ideal because it doesn’t displace them far from their surroundings. Right now, it’s not needed, but we wanted to make that available to the Health Department in case the need arises.”
The county government purchased the facility two months ago.
While many county services are closed or severely curtailed as a result of the pandemic, Stephens noted that many services continue, particularly those which take place outdoors. For example, county workers have so far removed more than 2,900 tons of debris from areas near Bagley that recently were hit by a tornado. Building-related inspections continue, and the Board of Equalization has switched many of its hearings from in-person to telephones.
”Even though the courthouse is closed to the public, a lot of work is getting done,” Stephens said.
Commissioner Sheila Tyson announced that computers, phones and tablets are being provided at several sites where food is distributed for schoolchildren and senior citizens. The computers will be used to help those who may not have internet access to register for the U.S. Census.
“We have them at 10 different sites, plus 12 other sites that already have computers,” Tyson said, adding that most of the counting is taking place in her own district, plus those of Commissioners Lashuna Scales and Joe Knight.
Feeding programs continue through the Jefferson County schools and several other providers, giving meals to many who would not otherwise be fed while schools are closed. Tyson said that 22,000 people are currently receiving meals.
Commission meetings will continue to be held online until Gov. Kay Ivey loosens shelter-in-place rules. On Thursday, Stephens, county manager Tony Petelos and county attorney Theo Lawson presided over the meeting from the Bessemer Cut-Off courthouse, while Ammons, Scales, Tyson and Knight all took part from their homes.
Stephens noted that the viewership numbers during parts of the meeting were higher than what the commission would typically see when meeting in its regular chambers — “maybe around 300 or 400, something like that.”
Still, the commission president is looking forward to the day when they can return to their chamber in downtown Birmingham.
“I can’t wait to get back,” Stephens said. “Sometimes it gets a little contentious, but at the same time there’s a certain level of comfort being there.”