MICHIGAN CITY — Life is about to get much different for La Porte County residents as state and local officials take drastic steps to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
After the first positive case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the county this past weekend, city and county officials announced office closures, meeting cancellations and other measures to protect the public.
La Porte County Commissioner Sheila Matias announced Saturday the first positive case in the county, a La Porte man who was being treated at Porter Regional Hospital in Valparaiso.
“We have a confirmed a case from La Porte city of coronavirus,” Matias said. “The victim, a 55-year-old male, one of our own citizens, is hospitalized and your prayers would be helpful. His family and contacts are in quarantine.”
She said it appears the only people the man recently came into contact with were family members in La Porte and Joliet, Illinois. He works in home repair, operating out of his home.
City and county officials were quick to announce a series of steps designed to keep the virus in check.
Mayor Duane Parry issued an Executive Order cancelling all city meetings, closing some facilities, and taking steps to protect city government workers’ health.
“Every hour of every day, the situation with the coronavirus in our city and our state is evolving, including the unfortunate first coronavirus-related death in Indiana,” Parry wrote in one of his orders.
The cancellations include all meetings and workshops of all city boards and commissions until further notice.
The mayor also ordered the closure of the Michigan City Senior Center, Barker Mansion and Washington Park Zoo until further notice. Events canceled in the order include the annual East Egg Hunt, Zoobilee and Tree Planting Day at Washington Park. Parry noted that other closures and cancellations could follow.
In a second Executive Order issued Monday, Parry announced that all city government buildings will be closed to the public. While city business will continue, the public is advised to contact city departments by phone or email.
The city will determine employees considered non-essential and “deploy remote workplace options to ensure continuance of government services as well as the continuation of employee salaries and benefits,” Parry wrote.
Parry called the closure a “proactive measure to protect our workforce as well as the public.”
At the county level, Matias announced Sunday a series of steps the county is taking “to keep essential public services provided by county government available even as we seek to reduce the risk of transmission both for the public and the valued members of the county employee workforce.”
The most consequential measure was asking the public to avoid coming to county buildings if possible, and to handle regular interactions with county government via email, fax, Facetime, Zoom or phone.
“County government offices including the courts will be open for essential functions only. We need your help to ensure that we are taking all necessary precautions to mitigate potential exposure for members of the public and staff.”
She also announced:
Department heads and elected officials would determine who in their respective departments can or should be working from home and those needed to keep essential business functions operating in county buildings.
County staff or members of the public are asked to stay at home if they are not well, and to take preventative measures as recommended by the CDC.
“We have expanded normal cleaning services of all common areas and are regularly disinfecting all public and common areas such as floors, doorknobs, keypads and elevator buttons,” Matias said.
County meetings will continue to be held, but only essential people should be present, Matias said. Members of the public are asked to watch at home on ALCO unless it’s absolutely necessary to be present.
La Porte County Prosecutor John Lake said his office and all affiliate offices will be closed to the public, including the Criminal Division. Child Support Division and Victim Advocate offices.
“The Prosecutor’s Offices will be closed to the public and that means anyone other than employees or law enforcement officers until Monday, April 13,” Lake said. “The doors to the offices shall remain closed and secured.”
Staff will be in the office during regular office hours conducting business, but will only be available by phone and email, he said. “Almost all essential contact with the public can be conducted over the phone or via email.”
Lake and deputy prosecutors will continue to appear in court as required by local judges and the Indiana Supreme Court, Lake said.
All appointments or meetings currently scheduled to take place in the Prosecutor’s Office are canceled, as are scheduled depositions and meetings (unless held remotely).
Court trials may also be delayed after La Porte County judges sent a request to the state high court to postpone them
“In light of the national emergency ... out of an abundance of caution and concerns for the health and safety of the general public ... the La Porte County Superior and Circuit Courts have petitioned the Indiana Supreme Court for relief and for the issuance of an emergency order to suspend all jury trials immediately and all non-essential civil and criminal hearings continued...,” Superior 1 Judge Michael Bergerson wrote in the petition.
All trials and hearings would resume no later than May 4.
The judge wrote that the La Porte County courthouses “do not have adequate sanitizing or hygiene stations, or supplies” for jurors, and the buildings “are not set up to adequately provide the social distancing necessary to comply with CDC recommendations for group gatherings.”
While trials are detailed, pre-trial and discovery hearings would be conducted remotely, and defendants would appear remotely for necessary hearings including setting bonds, entering pleas and setting trials.
“As we face an ever-evolving health issue, we ask for calm and collaborative assistance from each of you,” Matias said. “This is the time for us all to practice common sense, smart yet compassionate behavior while following the CDC guidelines.
“This is not the time to panic, but we all must make prudent adjustments as required by common sense and care for one another.”