The Lewis County Courthouse closed to the public last week, as county officials chose to offer access to meetings and other county offices online in an effort to promote social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the process, the altered approach might’ve opened the door to a more prominent use of online services in the future.
Lewis County Commissioner Edna Fund was admittedly nervous about access for some residents in a county faced with its own internet-based challenges. Still, she feels some of those concerns have been alleviated during the precautionary switch.
“It was difficult, because you want to maintain services and, of course, the concern about people in the east end and there’s other people around, that they don’t have good broadband,” Fund said. “They can’t get on and they can’t go to the libraries because they’re closed.”
The specific problem has been solved, in part, by repurposed ballot boxes put out by Lewis County Community Development and the Public Works department. Fund said those who live in the areas affected by low internet accessibility have driven and utilized the boxes to drop off documents for the aforementioned departments.
It’s one way Fund said the county is still trying to accommodate constituents who can’t just reliably log on to the internet.
“People are using their phones, too, they’re calling,” Fund said. “So, we can still talk to real people and ask questions. I’ve been getting some calls myself and that’s good.”
An online option for residents, though, is nothing new. Lewis County Chief of Internal Services Steve Wohld said some departments already offered online methods for their respective services before the full-scale online approach was implemented.
Some were even utilized quite a bit.
“A lot of birth certificates, water testing and food handlers cards was already available, it just wasn’t being used near as much as it is now,” Wohld said. “We’ve always been, I think, a little bit on the tech savvy side of things for being a smaller county.”
He pointed to the response by the community over the last two weeks and its embracing of the online services.
According to Wohld, the Lewis County website has seen “just under” 57,000 views in the last seven days. The county’s COVID-19 informational and Public Health pages brought in 20,000 and 6,800 views respectively over that span.
“We’ve definitely seen a huge increase in web traffic,” Wohld said.
The county’s social media has also seen a boom. Since the Lewis County Public Health and Social Services Facebook page was created roughly two weeks ago, it has amassed 1,317 likes as of Tuesday. Fund said she was informed that more people have tuned into the county’s daily COVID-19 update meeting, which is broadcast live on Facebook at 4 p.m., than any other meeting held by the Board of County Commissioners.
“(Board of County Commissioners administrative assistant Candace Hallom) said there’s more people (logged) on the 4 o’clock meeting than there ever has been,” Fund said. “Once people have the need to use it, they jump on.
The increased interest could very well be a byproduct of necessity for Lewis County residents. In other words, it remains possible those numbers could see a decrease once the COVID-19 event is over.
Wohld doesn’t think county residents will turn their backs on the online services now that many are aware of them, though.
“I think, almost certainly we’re going to keep a lot of these online services going,” Wohld said. “The work to build it is there, right, it’s already been done. The feedback we’re getting is people are actually pretty positive about it and there have been multiple people that have said ‘I want to keep doing this’ you know, permanently. So, I totally anticipate that.”
Both Wohld and Fund made sure to point to the issue of internet accessibility in the county and the necessity for both improved access and other accommodations in the interim, while the county works toward heightened reach for its broadband.
“We still have to accommodate other individuals too,” Fund said. “The PUD (Public Utility District) is working on the assessment (for broadband needs). It’s going to take a while before we get this and it’s going to take a lot of money, to get us ‘fully lit’ on our broadband, so we’re doing the best we can.”
When the dust settles, it could be the forcing of the county’s hand by COVID-19 that may ultimately move it forward.
“I think, since I’ve been in office, which is almost eight years, we have grown leaps and bounds in using online services, social media, we’ve come so far,” Fund said. “Now, this is really pushing us.”