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City-County Building closed following quake, but Utah cities still ‘open for business’

By Katie McKellar, KSL | Updated - Mar. 23, 2020 at 10:13 p.m. | Posted - Mar. 23, 2020 at 9:12 p.m.


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SALT LAKE CITY — The doors to the historical Salt Lake City-County Building downtown have been shuttered after last week’s 5.7-magnitude earthquake shook the Wasatch Front.

But thanks to retrofitting invested in decades ago, the repairs needed are minimal, city officials say.

“Thankfully the base isolators did their job and the damage is largely superficial,” Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said in a social media post after she toured the building to inspect the damage left in the earthquake’s wake.

“The building will be back to its full glory soon.”

Thanks to an expensive retrofit to in 1989, the Salt Lake City-County Building got a base isolator system so it would survive a major quake. In 2017, the city also completed an additional seismic upgrade project to install reinforcements so the building wouldn’t slip off the base isolators during a massive quake.

But even with the base isolators, the quake still “rattled off” plaster from some brick areas, according to Orion Goff, the city’s director of building services. Crews are working this week to repair the cracked and missing plaster.

Had the city not invested in the isolator system, there would “certainly” be a lot more damage, he said.

“We really owe the isolation system a big debt because it worked exactly how it was designed to work,” Goff said.

The shuttering of the Salt Lake City-County Building came at a strangely convenient time as city halls across the state grapple with a new reality that comes with the global coronavirus pandemic.

City workers continue to provide essential services — including everything from building inspections to garbage pickup — while also juggling “social distancing,” or keeping person-to-person contact to a minimum.

With Gov. Gary Herbert’s announcement last week to cap gatherings of 10 or more people, city officials suddenly had to change the way they did business.

“Overnight, city halls, mayors, council members and city employees had to tackle the challenge of protecting public health while providing the services that residents rely on,” said Cameron Diehl, executive director of the Utah League of Cities and Towns. We have seen innovation, we have seen adaptations, and we have seen cities work extremely hard to make sure city halls are open for business and providing services to residents during a very challenging time.”

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Some cities like Salt Lake City, which already offer online streaming of public meetings, shifted with more ease to totally virtual public meetings. But other cities had to scramble, some canceling meetings last week to make accommodations. Now, a majority of Utah’s midsize and large cities are conducting city council meetings electronically, Diehl said. Smaller cities are beginning to hold online meetings.

That’s thanks to the governor’s executive order order last week to temporarily change the Open Public and Meetings Act, allowing cities to hold public meetings without an “anchor” location. Diehl called that change a “game changer,” allowing city meetings to shift fully online without violating the open meetings law.

Other city services continue uninterrupted. Garbage truck drivers are still picking up trash. Tap water is still flowing. Dispatchers are still answering 911 calls.

City officials are employing “best practices,” Diehl said, to limit person-to-person contact. Employees are no longer gathering together or meeting in person. Meetings are happening over the phone or online. Wherever possible, public employees are working from home.

Lisa Shaffer, Salt Lake City’s public services director, said the city’s workforce is having minimal to no social contact. Public service employees are clocking in with a mobile app, and are told to go directly from their personal vehicles to their work vehicles. Building plans are being reviewed and approved online — a service that the city implemented years ago.

One service Salt Lake City didn’t offer but now does is electronic signatures for contracts.

“This has forced us into the 21st century on that issue,” Shaffer said, laughing. “That’s been important, and it’s working.”

Based on a survey Utah League of Cities and Towns conducted of Utah’s midsize and large cities, COVID-19 is affecting very few city services. Of those cities that responded to the survey, 98% said their city halls are conducting business as normal with appropriate adjustments, according to the league.

Some of those adaptations have come with some creativity, Diehl said.

For example, some cities, like Orem, are doing video and photo inspections for building code approval, Diehl said. Others, like West Point, are allowing building plans to be dropped off in a bin outside City Hall, where city planners will pick up to review. Permits are still being issued, but on an appointment-only basis. Librarians are allowing residents to pick up books outside — and doubling down on sanitizing books.

Other cities like Provo reported more creative solutions, like livestreaming yoga classes and librarians holding virtual story time sessions, according to the league’s survey. Several cities are partnering with the state library system to feature online storytelling, a program called “Cabin Fever Storytime.”

Cities remain “open for business,” Diehl said. Residents can find out more about their cities’ service accommodations by visiting their respective websites, Facebook pages, or Twitter accounts.

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