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City takes gradual approach to reopening

Although North Carolina entered Phase III of reopening a few weeks back, the City of Washington is taking a cautious approach to reopening facilities such as City Hall, Brown Library and the Grace Martin Harwell Senior Center.

“We’re open at some capacity at all sites, but we’re still taking precautions,” Russell said. “It’s not just a free-for-all. We’re going to continue to loosen that, but while the virus is still present and the numbers remain steady, our goal is to ensure that the service delivery is still there.”

At Brown Library, Russell says the facility has seen a tremendous boost in the use of its online services. Before the pandemic, the library’s digital offerings were accessed between 200-300 times per month on average. Now, those same resources are being used between 6,000 and 7,000 times per month. Coupled with a curbside pickup system for library card holders, the city manager says he sees the library providing a high level of service for local residents.

“People have had a lot of positive comments about that,” Russell said. “You can reserve them online and have them hand-delivered for curbside collection.”

Popular online events at the library include “Story Time with Mr. Terry,” and the library is still offering pick-up arts and crafts kits for children and teens to enjoy.

The Grace Martin Harwell Senior Center, which by its nature serves those who might be at a higher risk of complications from COVID-19, will remain closed for now. Russell says the staff there has been finding ways to engage with the local senior population through drive-thru and virtual events for the time being.

Finally, at the Washington Municipal Building, the city has established a walk-up service window to allow interactions with city staff. Those who need to establish, disconnect or make changes to their utility services can use the window, as can those who need to deal with building permits and inspections. Those who need to physically enter the building must go through a sign-in and affirmation process to confirm they have not experienced COVID-like symptoms.

As to when facilities will reopen in full, Russell says that depends on local COVID-19 trends in coming months. For now, he says limiting access to some city facilities is preferable to a situation where an entire department might have to close down due to a positive case and subsequent quarantine procedures for co-workers in close contact.

“We’ve had people ask, ‘Why aren’t you fully open?’” Russell said. “Then our question is, ‘Well, what isn’t getting done?’ and the answer is there isn’t anything. People just say that they want to come inside, and we haven’t really been able to justify that. We will get there at some point, but right now, we’re concentrating on maintaining the health of our staff, as well as the health and safety of those who do have to come in the buildings.”

Parks and recreation facilities, such as city playgrounds, the Suzie Gray McConnell Sports Complex and the Moore Aquatic and Fitness Center are currently open to the public, with some safety precautions still in place.

For the latest updates and details about city facilities, visit www.washingtonnc.gov.