A number of Iron Range cities declared local emergencies this week due to the COVID-19 outbreak, either through a mayor’s order or full council vote.
A mayor has the ability to declare a local emergency for three days after which time the City Council must vote to approve continuing the declaration. Once a city council has approved the declaration it continues until the council votes its conclusion.
On Monday, Biwabik Mayor Jim Weikum declared a local emergency and the city council will meet today to vote on its continuation.
Weikum explained the decision in a Tuesday email.
“The League of Minnesota Cities is hosting a series of informational webinars for city staff and elected officials. Yesterday the subject was compliance with the Open Meeting Law during the pandemic crisis,” he wrote. “I had held off on declaring an emergency for the City of Biwabik as I was not clear what purpose the proclamation might serve given that the President and the Governor had already taken such actions. Information shared during the webinar indicated that a mayoral proclamation helps trigger alternate meeting mechanisms which would enable us to conduct city council meetings without running the health & safety risk of gathering too many people in a single room. Since the mayoral proclamation is in effect for only three days, I also called an emergency meeting of the city council for Thursday evening to seek council authorization to extend the emergency.
This declaration follows the United States Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar declaring a public health emergency for COVID-19, beginning on Jan. 27, and President Donald J.Trump declared that the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States constitutes a National Emergency on March 13. That same day, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz declared a Peacetime State of Emergency to authorize all necessary resources to be used in support of the COVID-19 response.
The Biwabik declaration directs city staff to review and update protocols to ensure public services are maintained. City Administrator Jeff Jacobson is given the authority to implement the city’s Emergency Operations Plan and coordinate appropriate aid and resources from other jurisdictions.
Through the proclamation, Weikum has canceled in-person meetings of city council, Public Utilities Commission, Planning Commission, and other advisory commissions of the city of Biwabik and directs that they meet via telephone or other electronic means.
“It is not yet clear as whether the emergency status is required for potential financial support down the road, but taking the action seemed prudent in the event that such a declaration was a requirement for such support,” Weikum wrote. “The city administrator and I are committed to making sure that whatever technology we utilize for meetings offers transparency and accountability.”
The Biwabik City Council will meet for a special meeting at 5 p.m., via telephone conference. This meeting will be “held by electronic means pursuant of MN Statute 13D.021,” states the meeting agenda.
Also on Monday night, Hoyt Lakes held a regular city council meeting where “we were all spread out,” reported City Clerk Becky Burich, over email Tuesday. No members of the public attended the meeting.
“We are now investigating how to conduct virtual meetings — I am working with our IT - Roger's On-Line to utilize ZOOM for future council meetings (next regular meeting is April 13),” she said of plans moving forward.
At the meeting, the local emergency was declared by the city council.
The resolution states that proper mechanisms need to be put in place for the safety and health of the residents. Also, the city is satisfying criteria to be eligible for emergency or disaster financial aid through the state and federal governments.
“The city council declared a local emergency due to COVID-19 now because it gives council and management greater ability to make changes quickly if needed and there is funding available related to pandemics once a local emergency is declared,” explained Burich. “This local emergency stays in place until the emergency situation has subsided and the council will then declare an end to it. It will provide the citizens reassurance that the City is constantly monitoring the COVID-19 situation and will enable both council and staff to make the needed changes, if necessary, in a timely manner.”
Hoyt Lakes has also joined the COVID-19 Response Team for the East Range.
“Together we are working hard to prepare and prevent” the spread of the virus, Burich explained.
All Hoyt Lakes city offices are closed to the public and the employees are preparing for staggered shifts.
“Last night the City Council officially closed Fisherman's Point Campground and the online reservation system until further notice due to COVID-19,” said Burich. “Sad to do, but necessary.”
On Tuesday morning, a special city council meeting was called in Eveleth where the council voted to declare a local emergency.
City staff has prepared a notice which explains why this declaration was made. In part it reads, “This declaration allows for the City to: apply for grant resources that may be available from the Federal, State, and local governments and sources, to reimburse the City for costs incurred in response to the pandemic; for City staff to make agreements and purchases to respond to the pandemic; and for the City’s Emergency Management Director to suspend ordinances, rules, and policies that may inhibit or prevent prompt response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Over email Tuesday, City Administrator Jackie Monahan-Junek said the council is considering virtual meetings, but no details have been worked out.
“If a meeting is virtual, it will likely be by conference call,” she stated.
On Tuesday night, the Gilbert City Council met and discussed declaring a local emergency.
Over the phone Tuesday afternoon, Mayor Karl Oberstar explained that he declared a local emergency on Friday, March 13.
“We’ve closed everything down,” he said.
Oberstar said that the general public will not be allowed in the meeting but that a special room will be set up for about five people who wish to participate at city hall. The meeting will be streamed, as normal, on YouTube and public access channels.
“It is a different time, a different situation. It is scary,” Oberstar said. “But we will do what is needed until it is no longer needed.”
Emergency declarations were also approved in Aurora and Virginia on Tuesday.