Steps taken to ensure people have access to state and county services while offices are closed could point to new practices in the future.

“Part of the change is an opportunity to modernize our systems,” said Olmsted County Deputy Administrator Paul Fleissner.

The state has allowed the county the flexibility needed to work with some clients through online connections and over the phone, rather than requiring office or in-home visits.

Fleissner said that opportunity is available as long as the state’s emergency declaration is in place, but he’s hoping some of the flexibility will remain in place longer.

“We want it as long as possible,” he said, pointing out the added flexibility can help overcome transportation issues and other barriers for clients.

Commissioner Sheila Kiscaden said the Association of Minnesota Counties is lobbying state lawmakers to make some of the newfound flexibility permanent.

If that doesn’t work, she said she’d push for changes as a member of the governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Health and Human Services.

While the flexibility provides opportunities to reach people without in-person contact, Fleissner said much of the work done by county staff still requires face-to-face visits in the community.

He said county staff has been prioritizing these visits, with meetings taking place in open spaces and on porches to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

“People have been very creative,” he said.

He said it’s become part of a balancing act as requests for services continue to increase amid the national economic downturn and rising unemployment.

“Our staff isn’t clamoring to go out and expose themselves, but they want to get out and help people,” he added.

With that in mind, County Administrator Heidi Welsch told commissioners Tuesday that each county department is developing detailed plans to reopen offices and address safety concerns as work continues.

Some of the plans are being implemented Wednesday, with the initial reopening of the city-county Government Center for select services through Property Records and Licensing and the Olmsted County Sheriff’s Office.