Describing a need for "extraordinary and immediate measures to protect the health, safety and welfare" of residents and employees, the St. Louis County Board declared a state of emergency in St. Louis County on Wednesday during an emergency meeting in Duluth.

The declaration was unanimously approved by the seven commissioners, four of whom weighed in from remote locations via telephone — allowable by state law given the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and federal and state guidance advising isolation away from even modest-sized groups.

Describing the response landscape as "fluid" and "ever-changing," County Administrator Kevin Gray billed the emergency declaration as one that provided flexibility for administration to usurp ordinances, rules and policies that may inhibit emergency response. Gray mentioned purchasing, specifically.

"We're hearing more about mobile working and we're looking to invest in that in a more aggressive fashion," Gray said. "We have some capability and want to enhance that with more."

The declaration of local emergency "invokes St. Louis County’s disaster plans, including response and recovery aspects, and authorizes aid and assistance under those plans," the resolution said.

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The declaration came with a 72-hour time limit, and an extension is expected to be sought at board's Tuesday meeting in Virginia. That meeting had originally been scheduled for Morse Township near Ely, and then Duluth. After a brief debate Wednesday, the board agreed to move the meeting to Virginia.

With the move, St. Louis County joined the cities of Duluth and Superior and Douglas County as places to have made emergency declarations.

The declarations have the effect of giving counties and municipalities greater access to state and federal emergency funding. President Donald Trump and Gov. Tim Walz both declared national and state emergencies last week, respectively, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Commissioner Keith Nelson said he expected to see dollar figures associated with any further resolutions related to an extension of the emergency.

"I feel like I'm being asked to sign a blank check," Nelson said during conversation before he approved the state of emergency declaration.

"We do intend to look at fiscal impacts," Gray said. "It's not totally clear. We're certainly committed to informing the board as this goes along."

Commissioner Beth Olson said putting contingency plans together was a better way for staff to spend time than forecasting unknown costs.

"We have no idea," she said. "It's not a good use of their time. Of course it's important for us to be aware and understand the magnitude of expenses and what things will cost, but it should not be a priority between now and Tuesday."

As part of the emergency meeting, the County Board heard reports about how the county will shut down walk-in, public-facing services Thursday through Friday, before opening up on a limited basis Monday. Customers can expect that not all public doors will be open.

Exceptions for public-facing closures are the courthouses in Duluth, Virginia and Hibbing, as court operations will continue to adhere to their own limited schedules. Landfill, transfer stations and solid waste drop-off sites will also remain in operation.

Also Wednesday, it was announced that when possible, and with broad discretion, county employees would begin shifting to working from home.

This story was updated at 1:17 p.m. March 18 with information from the meeting. It was originally posted at 8:56 a.m. March 18.

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