May 15, 2021

Newton fire chief stresses city take ‘baby steps’ when returning operations to normal

COVID-19 task force also recommends council to not let their guard down

Letting city council members conduct their meetings from behind the dais is a possibility, Newton Fire Chief Jarrod Wellik said, but due to the close quarters environment and the CDC still recommending people stay six feet away from each other, it will require elected officials to wear masks.

“They are something that is fully needed,” Wellik said during his COVID-19 task force update at the April 5 city council meeting. “So that would be something I would like for you to consider.”

Last month, Newton Mayor Mike Hansen informed council members of his request to have Wellik assemble a task force to assist the city’s transition back to regular operations. This would potentially include returning city council members to their seats and allowing the public inside the chambers.

Wellik said at some point the city will have to “get back into the saddle.”

Returning to the dais gives the public a sense of normalcy, Wellik said, particularly for those watching on TV or online. But the city still needs to take precautions until the overall COVID-19 and vaccination numbers reach an acceptable level.

For instance, the task force wants to allow department heads the option of presenting online. At this point, however, Wellik and the task force want to keep the public seated in the atrium, saying the city needs to take “one baby step at a time.” The first baby step, Wellik said, is to bring the council together.

“That depends on your sense of security in doing that and making sure everybody is comfortable with it,” he said. “We’ve asked the directors and most of the directors stated they would prefer to be able to make that choice to either Zoom if they don’t have something important that they need to be in-person.”

Wellik said the last week of March, Newton’s seven-day positivity rate was at 4 percent, which “is a good number.” Overall, the fire chief said the numbers are down and the curve looks like it’s “normalizing.” The task force, he said, is looking closely at the vaccination numbers.

“At last check, Iowa is just over a million (people) — about 1,650,000 people — have had their first shots,” Wellik said. “That’s about 33 percent of the total population. That’s a good number. There’s about 21 percent or about 670,000 roughly that have had both shots and are considered fully vaccinated.”

Hansen said health officials expect the amount of available vaccines will increase over the next 60 days, too. The mayor wanted to gauge council’s interest in returning to dais, among other things. Councilman Steve Mullan stressed sanitizing and masks work and wanted to know where everyone was on shots.

Hansen said he’s fully vaccinated. Mullan received his second. Councilwoman Evelyn George said she would want both shots before returning to the dais. Councilman Dean Stonner said he had his first shot. Both Randy Ervin and Mark Hallam are still contemplating whether to get their shots.

George said she would prefer the current council meeting set up through April and maybe longer.

On a final note, Wellik said people are probably reaching a point where they’re getting COVID fatigue. He, too, is sick of COVID. He’s sick of wearing glasses on his head because they fog up every time he has to wear a mask. But at the same time, Wellik said people can’t let their guard down.

“You have to maintain that vigilance,” Wellik said. “It actually hit my family in the last week. I got a cousin who actually got his first shot. He starting getting ill like two-three days after he’d gotten his shot. Ended up COVID positive. Went into the hospital. I got a text about 10 minutes before I came in here.

“They’re going to take him off life support tomorrow. And here we are thinking that it’s done. It’s not. So just think of that as being baby steps. We have to do those small things. We have to keep each other safe.”

Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or cbraunschweig@newtondailynews.com

Christopher Braunschweig

Reporter with a strong penchant for community journalism.