St. Louis County plans June 1 'soft opening' of courthouses, service centers

Face masks aren't expected to be required, and some commissioners took umbrage with that.

FILE: St. Louis County Courthouse
The St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth. (File / News Tribune)

St. Louis County plans to reopen buildings and public-facing services on June 1, according to a public roll-out Tuesday during a County Board workshop.

Human Resources Director Jim Gottschald called the county’s plan by turns “measured,” “conservative,” “gradual” and a “soft opening” of courthouses and government services centers in St. Louis County.

“We are not going to jump in with both feet,” Gottschald told county commissioners during the board workshop.

The county declared an emergency and closed its buildings to public access about eight weeks ago, in late March, during the advancing spread of COVID-19 in the United States.

On an honor system basis, employees will be expected to run through a checklist for symptoms and take their temperatures using no-touch, infrared thermometers provided by the county.


Physical safety barriers have been installed throughout county courthouses in Duluth, Hibbing and Virginia, and service centers throughout the county. Hand sanitizer stations are being located on public countertops.

Facilities are likely to be open three hours a day to start, Gottschald said, allowing time for county staff to deep-clean buildings on a daily basis. The county is currently working with the district courts to settle on a cohesive reopening that would allow courts and county to have mirrored expectations when it came to face masks and other safeguards.

Already Tuesday, there was pushback from some commissioners.

Some didn’t like that face masks were only “highly recommended” internally and not required for customers.

“I want to make sure employees have the safest workplace and when you have private businesses such as Super One and Menards requiring masks, I feel that we should be doing the same not only for constituents, but for our employees,” Commissioner Patrick Boyle, representing eastern Duluth, said.

“Once you get to a barrier that is enough, but you have to get there first,” Commissioner Beth Olson, representing western Duluth, said. “There’s potentially a lot of things you could be doing in the building besides face-to-face interactions.”

Gottschald seemed to leave room open for a stricter mask protocol.

"We're going to need the courts to support us," he said. "We can work together and come up with a unified strategy. Those are some of the logistics we're working through now."


The county never stopped providing services, Gottschald said, explaining that lately curbside services in the Recorder’s Office, and proctored examinations online for 911 dispatcher candidates, have proven how creative and effective the county has been in delivering services despite the adversity of a pandemic.

Still, “the reality is this has changed, probably if not forever, for a very long time how businesses interact with customers and local governments can be included in that same category,” Gottschald said.

File: Virginia courthouse.jpg
St. Louis County Courthouse in Virginia (2015 file / News Tribune)

Since early on in the county’s response, it has consistently seen almost 900 of its employees “mobile working” — either from home or another location. Gottschald said the shift in how work was being done has been an effective “deterrent” in preventing the spread of the virus. He added that many of those workers will remain home unless inefficiencies are identified that would make it better for the county to bring workers back in-house.

So far, there are still 350 employees working in the offices throughout the county. Another 425 work in the field on any given day.

Gottschald and County Administrator Kevin Gray described the creation of a decision tree in order to weigh the quarantining of an employee who tests positive or is exposed to the virus.

Each scenario of exposure, either at home or work, will be decided on merits of individual facts, they said. For instance, a person working in an isolated corner of an office with someone presenting a known COVID-19 risk would be treated differently than a colleague who had more contact with the infected person.


Employees will have to give permission to share information about COVID-19 status with coworkers, the administrators said.

So far, one employee at the county has been known to test positive, but the person “had not worked in the office at any point during the health crisis," Gray said.

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