WILLMAR — The Willmar City Council took steps to protect both the public and its staff during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis by declaring a local emergency.

The resolution passed unanimously at Monday's council meeting, which will probably be the last in-person meeting the city will hold for several weeks.

Prior to the introduction of the emergency declaration, Mayor Marv Calvin gave a special state of the city address.

"We live in a great community and we help each other out in times like this. Reach out to family or a senior citizen that lives near you and ask if they need help," Calvin said. "Together we as a community can do this, we can make a positive impact on our community."

The local emergency will stay in place until the council votes to cancel it. The declaration gives city staff leeway and flexibility to implement new plans and procedures to keep the city working. City staff will be working on those plans and procedures in the coming days.

"It clarifies and perhaps adds legal standing to some of these unconventional and unusual measures city staff are going to have to take to respond to the current situations, and the fact these responses are likely to be required before staff can bring them to the council for consideration and approval," said City Attorney Robert Scott.

Calvin said the city won't be operating in a vacuum and the council would be kept abreast of what was being done. The emergency declaration just allows things to move a bit faster.

"We don't want to hold the city staff back from making good and prudent decisions," Calvin said.

The city is already taking steps to limit the risk of spreading the COVID-19 virus. The city is limiting out-of-state travel for employees, asking employees to self-quarantine if they traveled to a country on the Centers for Disease Control list of high-risk countries and requesting that citizens not enter city buildings if they have traveled internationally in the prior 12 days. Access to city buildings will be limited and citizens are asked to call the city at 320-235-4913 before visiting any such structure.

"Our staff is willing and eager to help you and assist you in any way possible," Calvin said.

The declaration also makes clear that holding in-person meetings, whether it's the council, committees or the Planning Commission, would not be practical in the current climate. Going forward, the city will be looking for other ways to hold meetings, including by telephone or by other electronic means, which is allowed by state law during a health pandemic or during a declared state emergency.

Calvin has also requested that all non-essential meetings for the next 14 days be canceled.

"This would include the work session on March 30," Calvin said.

Calvin asked everyone to follow the simple health rules national and state leaders and medical officials have been pushing for weeks, including washing your hands, coughing into your sleeve and staying home if you are sick.

"We need you to stay home if you are ill," Calvin said.

He also requests everyone practice social distancing, to stay home as much as possible, and when you do need to go out, to keep at least six feet between you and another person.

"My wife, Ginna, and I are choosing to self-distance ourselves from others, and I am asking you and your family to do the same," Calvin said. "It is not in our Minnesota DNA, but it will take all of us to halt and spread the curve of this pandemic and flatten the curve. That is our goal."

The council unanimously agreed to the emergency declaration and supports what city staff has been doing already.

"I think this is a very important step for us to take. It just says to the residents of our community that we respect them, we appreciate them and we want to keep them safe," Councilor Kathy Schwantes said. "We are all in this together. If there is a time to show leadership, this would be it."

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