Note: This story was last updated at 3:43 p.m.
The Oak Ridge City Council on Monday declared a local emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and agreed to suspend the disconnection of utilities for non-payments for up to 90 days.
The Council also agreed to let the Oak Ridge Electric Department work with ADFAC, a nonprofit organization, to supply $100,000 worth of utility aid to help residential customers. Customers would have to demonstrate that they were either laid off or had their work hours significantly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The temporary utility policy applies to electricity, water, sewer, and garbage service. The city is not providing the services for free, so bills will continue to accrue even if they’re not being paid. Oak Ridge Electric Director Jack Suggs said the city will work with customers to make payments once life returns to normal.
“We expect this is going to be very hard on people,” Suggs told the Oak Ridge City Council during a 90-minute special meeting at noon Monday.
In a Thursday memo, Suggs said the nationwide measures taken so far to reduce the spread of COVID-19 have dramatically affected many people in Oak Ridge.
“Hotel occupancy has plummeted to historically low levels while restaurants and entertainment venues have closed or reduced hours and services,” Suggs said. “As a result, many of these enterprises are struggling to meet their financial obligations. Many employees in these industries have been laid off or had their working hours slashed to levels where they are financially unable to meet their basic financial obligations.”
Complicating the situation: Schools have closed, meaning children are at home, sometimes by themselves, and social service agencies have closed.
Suggs said most utilities in the area have suspended disconnects for non-payment for now.
“This is done in recognition that persons who are confined at home, and especially those with children, require utilities for their continued health and welfare. This is an issue not only for the individual, but also for the community at large. The same thing can be said about the shutdown of commercial or industrial accounts. While the loss of one business is a tragedy, the loss of several accounts is a community disaster.”
The city’s temporary policy suspending disconnects does not apply to natural gas. That service is provided by Oak Ridge Utility District, which is not a city organization.
Also Monday, Council authorized emergency leave for city employees. The resolution allows the use of hours earned, if required during an emergency, to pay workers their regular hourly rate.
“It is recommended that allowed use of these banked hours will ensure salary payment to city employees during this emergency if required to be used in situations such as quarantine for 14 days or requirements to assist with family emergencies,” Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson said in a Thursday memo to City Council.
There are provisions for new employees who have not yet reached usable levels of emergency leave, and staff members with large banks of earned leave hours can donate them, to be used by others.
In other action Monday, Council gave Watson the authority to spend $65,000 to rent hotel rooms for essential municipal employees who need to stay in the city if the outbreak gets worse. About 1,000 room nights could be rented at $65 per night, Watson said. Essential city positions could include operators of the water and wastewater plants, firefighters and police officers, electric workers, and other staff members.
“As seen during snow events, we have held employees over for preparation,” Watson said. “In the case of the COVID-19 virus, we need to keep many vocations isolated and near the community. We would like the city department leaders to have the discretion of holding employees within the city.”
Council met in the special session on Monday to discuss the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Six Council members attended the meeting in person, and Oak Ridge Mayor Pro Tem (the city’s vice mayor) Rick Chinn participated by phone. Watson also participated by phone. The city tried to limit attendance and spaced out those who attended to comply with federal health recommendations and a new state order regarding gatherings.
Under its charter form of government, the city is apparently limited in what it can do. For example, shelter-in-place orders would have to come from the Anderson and Roane county health departments and not the city, Oak Ridge officials said.
The emergency declaration approved by Council on Monday recognizes that the city could need state and federal help, including from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The city’s declaration follows state and federal declarations.
The city’s expenses for its response to COVID-19 could be eligible for reimbursement through FEMA’s disaster assistance program.
“As with any natural disaster, cities will need to expend funds for the recovery of the city from disaster impacts,” Watson said in a Thursday memo to City Council. “The ability to recover costs from federal and state sources after the disaster is possible, and the city must be prepared to address any possibilities to keep the City of Oak Ridge economically and safely viable. The city will be required to purchase and expend on salaries, supplies, and materials to address impacts of the emergency.”
The emergency declaration, signed as an executive order by Oak Ridge Mayor Warren Gooch, is renewable in seven-day increments. It authorizes the city manager to direct department heads to be proactive and take any legal actions to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, the contagious respiratory illness caused by a new coronavirus, while still providing city services.
It “strongly” encourages residents and business to follow and comply with guidance and directives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local health departments.
“All members of the public are strongly encouraged to remain calm, to resist panic purchasing, consider their neighbors who have need, and to look after and help those most at risk to this pandemic to include the elderly and those with suppressed immune systems,” the order said.
The symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, cough, and shortness of breath. About 80 percent of patients are likely to recover without any hospitalization or additional treatment, according to Dr. Sanjay Gupta of the CNN news network. In some cases, though, the disease can lead to severe symptoms, hospitalization, and even death. It’s reported to be two to three times as contagious as the flu and possibly at least 10 times as lethal, with estimated death rates varying from 1 percent to 3.4 percent to as high as 7 percent. Older adults and people with certain medical conditions are said to be more vulnerable. About half of COVID-19 patients in Tennessee so far are between 21 and 40 years old.
The outbreak started in Wuhan, China, in December, and it has since spread around the world, infecting more than 350,000 people and killing more than 15,000. More than 100,000 patients are reported to have recovered. The disease has led to widespread shutdowns, lockdowns, travel bans, overwhelmed medical systems, and event cancellations or postponements, including of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
As of Sunday, there were more than 32,000 cases in the United States, and more than 400 people have died.
There were 505 cases in Tennessee as of Sunday, and two deaths have been reported.
To slow the spread of the disease, government and health officials are urging residents to frequently wash their hands, avoid touching their faces, self-quarantine as much as possible, maintain a distance of at least six feet between people, and reduce, limit, avoid, or prohibit public gatherings of more than 10 people.
Under Tennessee law, the Oak Ridge mayor has the power to declare a state of emergency, including in cases of disease outbreaks and epidemics, according to the City Council resolution approving the state of emergency.
See the City Council agenda here.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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