Oxford officials adjust services due to coronavirus outbreak

By Halie Barger

Oxford City Council voted Tuesday to hold all public meetings online, rather than in person during the current coronavirus emergency.

“The business of the city has to go on,” Christopher Conard, Oxford’s law director, said at the meeting.

Tuesday’s meeting was attended only by the mayor, council and a few administrators, all of whom made it a point to sit at least six feet apart. The meeting, as are all council meetings, was streamed online for public viewing, but the audience chairs in the council chamber were empty. The city had requested the public stay home and watch the video feed.

Tuesday likely will be the last meeting with officials gathering in the same room, while the crisis continues.

The emergency ordinance, passed unanimously, follows an opinion from Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost that public bodies can meet via computer and video technology and not be in violation of the state’s open meetings law during a public health emergency.

“That is an exception that has never existed before in Ohio law, and is only being recognized for the rare circumstances of this event,” Conard said to the council.

The issue with online conferencing, Conard said, is that there would need to be a way for the public to have the ability to participate. As a solution to this Conard cited Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s recent press conferences that utilize a scrolling live feed for public comments. The city has the technology to do this, Conard said.

“It’s looking like this will not be a short-term situation,” said Councilor David Prytherch. Prytherch urged city leaders to be thinking about how things can be accomplished in terms of web-based meetings, and sustainability of services.

At Tuesday’s meeting, different city departments reported on how the virus is affecting their operations.

At the Oxford Fire Department:

  • Every morning, the employees of the fire department get their temperature checked to make sure they are not sick.  
  • The fire department has updated its decontamination procedures for its facility and vehicles.
  • Patient contact procedures for the department have changed. The department will only send one responder to come in contact with an ill individual to decrease exposure.
  • The police, fire and service departments created a city incident action plan.
  • The fire department is in daily contact with McCullough-Hyde Hospital and the Butler County Emergency Management Agency.
  • The fire department, as of now, has plenty of personal protection equipment.

According to Chief John Detherage, if a member of the fire department comes in contact with an  individual who has the coronavirus, they will be quarantined for 14 days. If people from the department start to get sick, the department will ask for help from neighboring departments, Detherage said.

At the Oxford Police Department:

The police are working to deter large gatherings per the governor’s orders, according to Chief John Jones.

“When those (orders) originally came out, that was something that never had we seen before,” Jones said at the meeting.

While bars and restaurants are closed (except for carryout food), and many people have left town, there is still a concern about large house parties, Jones said. The police are working to deter house parties through common litter and noise ordinances, according to Jones.

The police are also taking these steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19:

  • The police station is shut down to outside events and members of the general public.
  • Increased environmental cleaning.
  • Officers stay away from the station, and stay in their patrol cars.
  • Police officers are no longer responding to all EMS calls, unless the EMS specifically requests that they do so.

A city update was also given by Assistant City Manager Jessica Greene on the city’s general response to the virus.

There was a fear that while Miami had moved its classes online to avoid classroom contact, students would continue to crowd the uptown bars and streets and that Green Beer Day, traditionally the Thursday before spring break that involves heavy drinking by many students, could turn into a Green Beer Week.

“There was a fear that we were going to have public safety mayhem, perhaps,” Greene said.

Oxford worked with the businesses uptown to interpret the rule about large gatherings. They utilized the police department to ensure that bars uptown were sticking with the attendance restrictions.

“It really was actually quite impressive how cooperative they (the bars) were,” Greene said.

But by midweek the governor had ordered all bars closed, Green Beer Day was canceled and many students were headed for home.

Some other updates from the city include:

  • All events in public areas have been cancelled through April 6.
  • All city programs have been closed.
  • All in-person inspections have been suspended.
  • There has been a moratorium placed on city utility shut offs.
  • Most city staff will be working from home, although one representative of each city department will continue to work in the office

     and fire, police, and service employees will remain at their regular work sites.

  • The city building is closed to the public, but there will be a doorbell installed for employees to greet people at the doors.
  • There will be no interruption to waste, food scrap or yard waste collections.
  • The TRI Recreation Center is closed.
  • All payments for city services can be processed online or submitted in the drop box outside the city building.
  • Rumpke garbage collection, and recycling will be continuing as normal.
  • Energy providers Duke and Glenwood have decided not to interrupt services due to unpaid bills at this time.
  • Capital projects are ongoing as is feasible.
  • The water main replacement on Walnut Street is on hold.

Councilor Chantel Raghu brought up concerns about bigoted or xenophobic remarks or actions directed toward Chinese students and residents because of the virus, which originated in China. President Trump has recently been referring to coronavirus as the “Chinese virus,” a term critics say promotes racism.

An open letter to the community from the faculty and staff of the Global and Intercultural Studies Department at Miami, condemning the use of such terms began circulating Thursday.  

Greene said she felt that while she had heard of xenophobic responses to the virus from some members of the community when it first became known, she thought local attitudes had shifted away from that.  

“If you are still seeing negative things please alert me, and we can do a community education campaign,” Greene said at the meeting.

The city will continue to send out information about the virus through its newsletter. Greene said she’s hoping to be able to compile information on how to make donations to local organizations, and how to receive help from those organizations.