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Towns rethink services, facilities, workdays amid COVID-19 pandemic

Officials in Long Island's 13 towns are trading ideas to protect the health of the public and workers and said some changes, such as drive-through tax payment booths, may be permanent. Credit: Newsday / Steve Pfost

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced local governments to alter the way they do business, and now towns are beginning to implement permanent changes in anticipation of fully reopening.

“The culture of government is going to change in major ways,” said Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine. “The way that we do business has already dramatically changed very quickly. Once you’ve pierced the barrier, there’s very little going back.”

Town supervisors said services that were moved online will remain available there and some changes, such as drive-thru payment systems for taxes and beach passes, will likely be permanent.

“I think a lot of the things we’ve learned through dealing with this pandemic are things that either should have been implemented before or now that they’ve been implemented, they will continue,” said North Hempstead Supervisor Judi Bosworth.

Several town supervisors said that the COVID-19 pandemic spurred regular conference calls between town leaders that in turn have led to idea-swapping for changes they can make to protect the health of employees and the public.

“Everybody is pivoting off of everybody else’s ideas,” said Rich Schaffer, Babylon supervisor and head of Suffolk’s Supervisor Association. “This has really brought everybody together.”

Leaders in all 13 Long Island towns said they plan to or have already installed Plexiglas dividers in areas where workers interact with the public. Some are considering dividers between employees as well, or restructuring office spaces. These kinds of preventive actions will likely lower rates of all illnesses, officials said, lessening sick days.

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Other ideas towns are exploring include installing automatic doors, toilets and sinks to reduce touchpoints in facilities.

“The idea is to go touchless and help prevent the spread of another catastrophe like this,” said Hempstead Supervisor Don Clavin. The town is also spraying an epoxy in its public bathrooms that is less likely to retain germs than traditional tile, he said.

Towns are considering having some employees continue to telework and are looking to incorporate more Zoom meetings into everyday business.

“Instead of dragging everybody to town hall to do a planning meeting, you get on a Zoom call and do it in 20 minutes and look at all the traffic you’ve kept off the roads, the time you’ve saved,” Schaffer said.

Some towns are planning to buy temperature readers to use at public entrances and to limit the number of visitors inside offices. Southampton is considering using a color-coded pass system by department to restrict the amount of visitors and their movements.

“The idea is to control the number of people in any space at one time so we don’t have clusters of folks standing around within close proximity of each other,” said Ryan Murphy, the town’s director of emergency management.

Southampton, like Islip, is looking to use ionizers and purification systems to help disinfect public spaces. The costs of these devices can run several thousand dollars, but as is the case with other changes, towns are hoping to get federal reimbursement.

“We figure for the value of what they do for safety, it’s an expense that’s well worth it,” Murphy said.

Changes for the better?

Some things towns are considering to protect employee and public health:

  • Plexiglas barriers
  • Temperature readers for employees and visitors
  • Automatic doors and restroom facilities
  • Air and surface purification systems
  • Improved ventilation systems
  • Improved and increased cleaning of facilities
  • Limiting the number of visitors in offices, hallways and elevators
  • Drop boxes for paperwork
  • Moving programming to online and television
  • Restructure the workday with staggered shifts
  • Having some employees file paperwork remotely

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