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Declaration extended to access federal recovery funding; county reopens courthouse to walk-in visitors

PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - The Columbia County courthouse has been open by appointment only since March 2020.Columbia County commissioners voted last week to extend the state of emergency for the COVID-19 pandemic.

"While it feels like we're in a bit of a perpetual state of emergency, and I know that irritates folks — it irritates me, to be honest with you — but there's some reasons why we go into states of emergency, and a lot of times it's for financial reasons," Commissioner Casey Garrett said at the board's June 30 meeting.

The board's order extended the state of emergency until Dec. 31, aligning with the governor's statewide order.

"The primary reason for extending the declaration at this point is for recovery purposes. The emergency declaration allows us access to federal funding for COVID recovery," county counsel Robin McIntyre explained.

Garrett said McIntyre's explanation offered a good reason to support the order.

"Yet I am still frustrated that we've been in a state of emergency over this and other things. … But we don't want to leave any money on the table," Garrett said.

The county leaders want to "bring as much money back to our local taxpayers as possible, so I will support it," he added.

Commissioner Henry Heimuller said the county isn't just blindly following what the state does, but that legal counsel digs into any potential orders and provides the commissioners with advice.

"Unfortunately, if you let your state of emergency expire, all of a sudden, you don't have that string to those federal dollars. So it's important, especially since… contrary to popular belief, just because today is June 30, this emergency isn't over with," Heimuller noted.

Commissioners unanimously approved extending the state of emergency and reopening the courthouse. Since early in the pandemic, most in-person county services have been available by appointment only.

Now, the courthouse will be open for walk-in visitors.

The commissioners did not approve any additional restrictions on masks. That means county facilities will follow the statewide guidance and no longer require masks.

County counsel Sarah Hanson noted that the commissioners' vote only applied to county facilities, rather than the entirety of Columbia County. "What we've done today is related to county facilities only," Hanson said. "People may still be required to wear masks in other businesses or municipal buildings. And it's up to that business to make that decision. We're not doing that for them."

Crystal Reeves, the trial court administrator for Columbia County Circuit Court, said last week that the state's chief justice had lifted mask and social distancing requirements. Because the circuit court uses county facilities, the chief justice's order included provisions to allow courts to add restrictions to "make sure that we're in line with what our county is doing," Reeves said.

Appointments may still be required or at least recommended for some services, as before the pandemic, to ensure the correct person is available to assist. The county's website has more information on how best to reach each department.

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