GOSHEN — Faced with the continued spread of the COVID-19 virus and the recent positive diagnosis of a Goshen City Council member, city leaders are having to rethink how they work and conduct the city’s business in an effort to best protect the health of city employees and residents alike.
According to Mayor Jeremy Stutsman, while the city had been making preparations for how to adapt to the growing spread of the coronavirus in recent weeks, it wasn’t until the positive diagnosis of City Councilman Jim McKee in late March that the reality of the virus’ spread took on a public face.
“We are acutely aware the virus is in our community, but up until this point we did not have a public face to connect it to,” Stutsman said at the time of McKee’s announced diagnosis. “My friend and colleague Jim McKee wanted to step forward and be that face. I appreciate his willingness to show once again how much he cares about Goshen.”
Prior to his positive diagnosis, McKee had attended both a Goshen Plan Commission and Goshen City Council meeting on March 17, which in turn resulted in anyone present and potentially exposed to the virus at those meetings having to self-quarantine for two weeks.
In responding to the incident, Stutsman said McKee’s case reminded him of how a single point of exposure can affect many people in a community if precautions are not taken.
According to Stutsman, the two-week isolation period for anyone who came in contact with McKee during the March 17 meetings officially ended last week, and no additional cases of those potentially exposed to the virus have been reported.
“We are now outside of that two-week isolation period from when the contact happened, so we’ve been checking in with everybody, between council and also a few Plan Commission members and a couple staff that were involved with that meeting, and I’m really happy to say that everybody has reported that they have no symptoms,” Stutsman said.
However, in light of McKee’s recent diagnosis and the continued spread of the virus throughout the county, Stutsman said the city has been busy implementing a number of changes to the way it conducts its day-to-day operations in an effort to ensure contact between members of boards and commissions, as well as contact with the public, is as limited as possible.
“The governor continues to relax certain state statutes that guide how communities function, and one of those is with council meetings — and any of our public meetings, actually — where we can now start utilizing video conferencing platforms like Zoom, or having members call in so that they can vote over the phone or from other locations so we don’t have to gather anymore,” Stutsman said of the recent changes. “Actually, before we knew that we had a council member who had tested positive, we had already planned for that to be the last council meeting where we would all get together in person. We’ve actually already started the process of setting up the council chambers for being able to broadcast our meetings to the public so that we can still be transparent and still have everyone see and hear what we’re saying and how we’re voting.
“Obviously, after learning of Jim’s diagnosis, we’re trying to push that process a little quicker now, and we have a process set,” Stutsman added. “State law says that as far as council meetings go, I have to be in the room, because I’m running the meeting. We also have to have one council member there, but everybody else can utilize those other platforms to call in, etc. And that same format can be used for any of our public meetings, actually.”
By utilizing video conferencing programs like Zoom, Stutsman said he and his fellow board and commission members will still be able to connect with city staff and residents to conduct the city’s business, while at the same time allowing most — if not all — parties to participate remotely, and thus limit potential exposure to the virus.
Additionally, Stutsman said the plan is to broadcast those meetings live on the city’s website, and potentially various social media platforms, to ensure continued public transparency, access and involvement moving forward.
“At this point, the council chambers have to remain open to members of the public who want to attend our meetings. So, we’ve already spread the chairs out, we’re keeping them back from the front of the room, and we do have to follow the no more than 10 people in a gathering directive that the governor has issued,” Stutsman added of the city’s ongoing virus response efforts. “So, we’re kind of interested to see how this all plays out with our first meeting that happens this way. If we happen to have a lot of public that wants to come in, we’re just going to have to figure that piece out and work through those issues as we can.”
Given the unprecedented nature of the pandemic and its impact on city operations, Stutsman said he has been staying in close communication with other mayors from around the state to compare plans, share ideas and discuss what has and has not worked.
“And there’s actually a mayor’s email going around to all mayors in Indiana, which has been just a phenomenal resource,” Stutsman added. “Everybody posts their questions to this list, and then the other mayors respond back with what they’ve experienced. And so, all mayors in Indiana are really connected right now so that we can be resources to each other, and lean on each other when needed.”
Speaking to exactly how members of the public will be able to tap into the various remote conferencing techniques used by the city for meetings moving forward, Stutsman said that process is still being worked out, and will be shared with the public once the process has been ironed out.
“What I believe will happen — and this is not my field — is that the city employees and the council members that are part of the meeting will be on Zoom, and then that screen will be shared live either through social media or our city website so that anyone can log in and listen to what’s going on,” Stutsman said. “At this point, public comment will still be taken in person at the meeting, or, if people want to send their comments in via email, etc., we’ll take those as well. But at this time, most communities are not taking live comments online, because once you’re online, it just opens things up to people from other communities, etc., who are just out there to cause issues and disrupt proceedings. So, we’re doing everything we can to stay transparent in Goshen with our community, and make sure everybody knows what we’re doing and how we’re responding to COVID-19.”
Asked why the city doesn’t just cancel all public meetings outright in response to the virus, Stutsman noted that many city meetings are actually required by state statute, and thus cannot be canceled.
“For example, Board of Works, City Council, Park Board, Plan Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals are all mandated by state statute,” Stutsman said. “For City Council, by state statute, we have to have at least one council meeting a month. And then Board of Works, that’s the board that spends and approves all the money in the city, and that also has to continue to happen in order for us to continue to function.
“So, we’re getting those meetings moved online, implementing social distancing, etc. But the nice thing about Goshen is, for a long time, we’ve had two council meetings a month. We only have to have one, but we do two so people have more opportunities to come see us,” Stutsman added. “And by state statute, the only time the council has to take public comment is during a public hearing. But in Goshen, we take public comment at public hearings, at every amendment we do, at everything that’s in front of the council as an agenda item. So, Goshen for a long time has actually gone above and beyond the state statutes. However, the virus is kind of forcing us to kind of pull back to those state minimums just because of trying to keep everybody safe and healthy.”
Given the relatively short window with which the city has been forced to transition from a primarily in-person communication model to a primarily online or remote communication model, Stutsman said he’s proud of how the city’s employees have adapted to the new normal.
“As far as adapting to all this, I think city staff has done a great job. We had to get some more laptops for people working at home and make sure that those had cameras on them for our Zoom meetings, and we’re ordering some more web cams for our computers, just because we’ve never utilized those before. But I think overall, it’s actually been a really good process,” Stutsman said. “And my COVID-19 task force that I meet with multiple times a week, we actually decided to move to only Zoom meetings, even though it’s just six of us, just to be safe. So, we’re doing a lot of remote conferencing, and we’re doing things like other employees aren’t allowed to go into someone else’s office without permission now, so whoever’s office it is, they know what’s clean and what’s not, etc.
“So, yeah, we’re taking a lot of different precautions. In the past, I never really had an opportunity to sit and work in my office because I was always walking or driving to the next meeting or event. So, it’s been kind of interesting for me to just sit at my desk all day and actually be able to keep up with all the work and emails and everything,” Stutsman added. “But it’s definitely something we’re adapting to quickly, and it seems to be fairly successful.”
For more information about CDC guidelines and the latest information about Goshen’s response to COVID-19, go to goshenindiana.org/covid19.
After having spent several weeks quarantined at home following his positive COVID-19 test late last month, Councilman McKee took a few minutes Friday afternoon to chat about his recent experience and recovery.
“The thing that’s funny is, I didn’t feel all that bad. I mean, I was a little tired, but I didn’t feel bad. But then my wife got me talking to my son, who works out at the hospital. He then called the doctor, and he said to go get tested,” McKee said of his initial diagnosis. “Since then, the doctor’s office and health department has been calling almost every day, and they want to know if I’m coughing, etc. But I’m doing well.”
All things considered, McKee said he was lucky in that his case appeared to be a mild one, with symptoms not unlike the common flu.
“I would say the symptoms are similar to the flu,” McKee said of his case. “They don’t give you anything in terms of a prescription, but what I did is I started taking sinus medicine to dry out your throat and stuff. That’s done as much for me as anything else.”
By all indications, McKee said it appears he is recovering well from the virus, and was officially scheduled to be outside of the required quarantine window as of Saturday afternoon.
“I should be done on Saturday, because I’ll have gone four days without having a temperature,” McKee said. “So, my wife’s been hanging in there with me. She’s fine, has no symptoms, and is just here taking care of me. And fortunately, with her job, she can work from home. So, she’s just stuck here with me as well.”
As for how he’s feeling about all the directives coming down from the state and federal level when it comes to the stay-at-home mandates, social distancing, etc., McKee said while he dislikes the disruption as much as the next guy, he feels that in the end, the efforts are worth it if it can help slow the spread of the virus.
“I mean, I don’t like them any more than anybody else. But at the same time, if we can keep from spreading this more and nip it in the bud, that’s what we need to do,” he said. “And it’s starting to hit other ages as well, not just us old people. So, we really need to do what we can now to try and get ahead of this.”