Officials discussing phased reopening

By Jason Evans

Staff Reporter

COUNTY — Pickens County Council is considering plans to slowly reopen county offices to the public and to kickstart the local economy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Roper discussed the plans during a called county council meeting Monday night.

“I wanted to give you an update a little bit on where we stand and where we are headed,” he said.

Earlier that day, Gov. Henry McMaster extended South Carolina’s State of Emergency declaration another 15 days.

“Because of that and as we keep watching what the governor is doing, we have tried to look at what we reasonably should do, what we as Pickens County government should do,” Roper said. “What the governor dictates … has a lot more impact on local economy than what the county might dictate, but the county government needs to respond in a way that’s appropriate as this situation unfolds.”

Until now, county leadership has been looking at the situation in two-week increments, he said.

“We feel like we planned a step ahead of what the state is saying,” Roper said. “When they were ready to start closing things down, we already had plans in place to do that.”

Roper presented to council “how we’re prepared for when the governor says that it’s time to start opening things back up.”

Marketing staff have created the “Kickstart Pickens County” concept.

“As we come back out of this, we’re going to need locally to have a kickstart,” Roper said.

The plan for county staff is one component of the kickstart plan. The other component is options for council to consider, including economic development and local stimulus options, Roper said.

“We’re not going to ask for any action tonight,” Roper said. “We just want you to think about them.”

Reopening county buildings would be done in three phases.

“Phase 1 is to take where we are now and to begin scaling up, in reasonable, incremental ways.”

Phase 2 would begin May 18.

“That would be kind of a soft opening of county buildings,” Roper said. “Having limited access, but still allowing some public access to the buildings.”

Phase 3 is a “June 1 open,” he said.

“Now, when we say a June 1 open, the way that things are going to work is not going to be the same as it was on March 1,” Roper said. “It won’t be the same, because we’re all going to have learned a lot in this process.”

For example, the planning department has learned how to do building inspections from yards as a contractor or homeowner conducts a virtual tour around the inside of the structures filming with their phones, he said.

“There’s things like that that we’ve learned that we’re not going to unlearn,” Roper said. “Just because June 1 is called fully open, it’s fully open with all the social distancing that we’ve learned, the things that we’ve learned that we can’t unlearn and shouldn’t unlearn. It’s the new normal, is what I would call it.”

Phase 1 would see Mile Creek Park open “for existing reservations only,” Roper said. While the playground and picnic shelters would remain closed, the boat ramp would remain open and the bathroom facilities would reopen. The day-use areas would remain closed.

“If you have a reservation existing, they’re going to go ahead and let people take those reservations and complete those reservations,” Roper said.

Under Phase 2, the playground and picnic shelter would remain closed, but the day-use area, including the beach, would open “for a small amount of capacity.”

In Phase 3, June 1, the park would start taking new reservations and opening the playground, he said.

The museum has come up with a two-phase approach.

The Pickens County Performing Arts Center will continue to schedule virtual concerts.

“They’ve rescheduled many of their events … into the summer,” Roper said. “In the meantime, we’re going to do more virtual concerts in the facility to keep the brand going.”

Some commercial traffic has begun returning to the county airport, Roper said.

“We’re going to look at normal manning of the terminal on May 18, still some limited access to the terminal,” he said.

County employees have been assisting local aid agencies, such as Meals on Wheels, United Way and the Gleaning House, during the pandemic.

“The outside agencies have been very grateful,” Roper said.

That assistance will continue through May 4, when the county’s state of emergency declaration runs out.

Regarding the help to aid agencies, depending on what council does with the emergency declaration, “we will look to phase that out on May 15,” Roper said.

The auditor’s office and the probate court will also re-open under a three-phase system, he said.

The library system will reopen using a four-phase system, Roper said.

“They have a very detailed plan,” he said.

Staff will coordinate with state agencies to make sure the county is fully integrating into the statewide AccelerateSC plan announced by McMaster, Roper said.

Some economy-stimulating ideas council may consider include upping the percentage that’s applicable to the county’s local business preferred purchasing policy from 3 percent to 5 percent, spurring projects that qualify for CARES Act funding, job training or job retraining and “supporting and promoting Pickens County small businesses,” Roper said.

That could include providing small business retention grant funding for chambers of commerce to use to assist businesses “that have suffered because of COVID-19,” he said.

“We as a county don’t want to pick winners and losers, but we could make funds available to chambers of commerce if they would set up suitable programs,” Roper said.

Eligible expenses would include rent, mortgage, employees, utilities, support and marketing, he said.

“We want you to at least consider it,” Roper told council.