Henry County declared a state of emergency on Monday, canceling recreational events and suspending jail visitations among other efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

There have been no confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Martinsville or Henry County thus far, but the declaration allows the county to “better prepare for and address issues related to the coronavirus pandemic,” County Administrator Tim Hall said in a statement.

“This declaration is not in response to any positive tests or anticipated positive results in our area,” Hall said. “This action just gives us more flexibility as we respond in the coming days and weeks to this public health threat. It is important to remove any barriers to the county’s ability to mitigate the spread of this virus, and this will help us in this area.”

This action follows Gov. Ralph Northam’s announcement of a state of emergency across Virginia on Thursday. The declaration is a prerequisite for the locality to be eligible for certain pools of state and federal funding related to the pandemic.

Locally, the emergency declaration relaxes purchasing rules to allow the county to more easily buy supplies and services that may be needed. It also gives county officials more freedom to move employees as needed to help local response efforts. Staff members are already being reassigned to ensure “more thorough and more frequent disinfecting occurs in public areas,” according to the release.

For now, the county administration building will maintain normal hours, and government meetings will go on as scheduled — including the Board of Supervisors meeting planned for March 24.

However, cautioned Deputy County Administrator Dale Wagoner, “this is an evolving situation, and it is subject to change at a moment’s notice.”

As of Monday evening, the city of Martinsville had not followed suit in declaring an emergency, but officials issued statements announcing other precautions. Among these measures, visitors to the city municipal building will now be screened for fever before they are allowed to enter.

In a release from The Harvest Foundation about local efforts to address COVID-19, Martinsville City Manager Leon Towarnicki stated, “The security checkpoint coming into the municipal building will begin monitoring the temperature of those who enter, and individuals with an elevated temperature will not be allowed to come in.”

Both city and county officials said they are encouraging employees and visitors to government facilities to stay home if they feel unwell or show symptoms of the coronavirus. These include fever, cough and shortness of breath.

Residents are encouraged to conduct business over the phone or online instead of in person whenever possible. If it is necessary to visit government buildings, visitors are encouraged to practice “social distancing,” maintaining at least 6 feet from other individuals in the building; as well as proper handwashing techniques and use of hand sanitizing products.

In the city, visitors will be required to use hand sanitizer as they enter the municipal building, and non-essential travel is canceled for employees, Towarnicki said in the release.

In Henry County, all recreational events and activities are canceled indefinitely. Parks and outdoor facilities remain open, but attendees are urged to practice caution and avoid large gatherings.

“These measures are not out of fear, but they are an act of preparation and compassion – compassion for our citizens and public servants,” Hall said. “We want to make sure we can continue to provide essential services to our citizens during this time.”

In addition, the county is installing equipment to extend public Wi-Fi to the parking lots at the administration building, Henry County Courthouse, and Jack Dalton Park. This will allow people who do not have internet at home or work to “access internet resources from our parking lots without leaving their vehicle,” the release stated.

County officials urged the public to refer to reputable sources for information on COVID-19, namely, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Virginia Department of Health.

Residents who may have symptoms of COVID-19 should call their health care provider for medical advice. Only call 9-1-1 for life-threatening emergencies.

“We are in unusual times,” Hall said. “I hope we can look back in six months and think ‘we over-reacted.’ We will take that criticism at that time without hesitation because it would mean that everything is normal, and our community is safe.”

Kim Barto Meeks is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. She can be reached at 276-638-8801.

Kim Barto Meeks is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. She can be reached at 276-638-8801.

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