By Carla Bumstead
It has been a little over a month since Michigan received the COVID-19 (coronavirus) stay at home order from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Since then, the city of Eaton Rapids has been learning how to adjust in ways that work for both staff and the residents they serve.
City hall was closed to the public just after the order went into effect, and it remains “closed” for now. However, as Mayor Paul Malewski explained, work is still going on inside the building.
“We have minimal staff coming into city hall — to handle a variety of things like accounts payable and billing, issuing permits and other administrative tasks,” Malewski said. “They also go in to return messages that are left on voicemail.”
He said staff at the Department of Public Works and the electric department are working on a “rotating” basis so as to keep the total number of people interacting together down to about half what it usually is.
“If one person gets [COVID-19] and we had the full 14-member crew, then we could potentially all get it,” he explained.
However, Malewski said the city has not had to put anyone on furlough, nor have they had to lay anyone off.
He said the COVID-19 situation and the changes it has necessitated, has presented both challenges and opportunities.
“Some of the challenges have come from the need for people to interact electronically,” he said. “Some people, including some of our older residents, are not real familiar with how to make payments, pay taxes and apply for permits online.
“But conversely, this has given us the opportunity to see ways in which we need to improve our ‘virtual presence,’ which includes the website. We realize we need to make things more user-friendly and easier to access, both for interaction between the community and the city and the internal interaction between city staff.”
Malewski urges anyone with questions on navigating the city website (cityofeatonrapids.com) to call city hall at 517-663-8118. Callers will need to follow the voice prompts and leave a voicemail for the appropriate department. Administrative staff are typically in the office on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
“We may not be able to get back to you immediately, but we will get back to you,” Malewski said.
Because of the current situation, the city has put all utility late fees and shut offs on hold.
“Unfortunately, we can’t do anything about when taxes are due, but for city water, sewer and electric there will be no shut offs or late fees until July,” Malewski said.
With staff not having to worry about shut offs, coupled with an overall reduction in area traffic, they have also been able to get a jump on some infrastructure issues.
“It has given us an opportunity to reassess city infrastructure,” he said. “With there being no shut offs, and with fewer people using the parks, it gives us more time and opportunity to repair things.”
Malewski pointed out that all city parks remain open.
“Overall, outside activity and park use is definitely down. But we are seeing quite a few people out at the canoe launch and kayaking on the river. I think utilization is down mainly because there are no organized events.”
Eaton Rapids Police Chief Larry Weeks said his department is running “essentially as normal.” Staffing levels have not changed, nor have daily routines.
“In law enforcement, we are routinely exposed to situations that require a mind-set of being always prepared for something out of the ordinary,” Weeks explained. “Being in an unusual situation, or one with a heightened sense of safety concerns, is what we are used to.
“We are sanitizing more often and using the appropriate PPE. But in general, we are pretty much going about our regular daily routines.”
He said the department routinely takes part in bio hazard training, which is similar to the current virus concerns in some ways.
“This is in our wheelhouse — as far as being prepared to help and being prepared to do our job.”
In terms of issues directly related to the virus, Weeks said they have not seen any significant problems. But non-emergency calls have “dropped dramatically.”
“The number of regular, routine calls, where someone is simply looking to speak with an officer, have definitely gone down,” Weeks said. “Examples would be getting one’s keys locked in the car or neighbor disputes, that kind of thing.”
Traffic issues have also seen a decline, as people are simply not out on the roads as much. As far as overall crime, Weeks said it all depends on the specific type.
“The vast majority of our citizens are being very respectful of the governor’s orders,” Weeks said. “If there is an issue, we are approaching things from the perspective of education rather than enforcement.”
He did say that, during the first few weeks of the stay at home order, they did notice an up-tick in responding to calls from people in mental health crisis.
“I think the initial order from the governor really increased a lot of people’s stress,” Weeks said. “But other than those first few weeks, we really haven’t noticed anything of significance.”
The lobby of the police department is currently closed to the public, but anyone coming into the Public Safety building on Line Street can pick up a phone in the foyer and be directly connected to central dispatch.
Weeks said one thing he would like residents to keep in mind is that, when calling central dispatch, one should let them know if they are feeling unwell for whatever reason.
“We really want to avoid having an officer going in somewhere without knowing ahead of time that someone is feeling ill.”
PHOTO INFO: COVID-19 has not closed Eaton Rapids’ city parks and Mill Pointe Park is welcoming kayakers and other river enthusiasts.