Dunwoody City Hall began a limited reopening with “skeletal staff” handling Municipal Court payments for four hours on May 18.

Dunwoody became the first City Hall in Reporter communities to make a reopening move after two months of pandemic closures. It also came the same day that neighboring Chamblee announced its return to live City Council meetings last week went wrong when an attendee — reportedly a councilmember, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution — later proved to have COVID-19. That could affect thinking about Dunwoody City Council’s similar in-person comeback, which would happen no earlier than mid-June, says one councilmember.

Dunwoody City Hall. (File)

In Dunwoody, the experiment is part of a first phase of reopening City Hall at 4800 Ashford-Dunwoody Road, which had been closed to the public since March 14. Now its doors are open 8 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday, though residents are still encouraged to use online and phone services if possible. Limited reopening of certain park amenities began the same day. The city says that a second phase with fewer restrictions could follow on June 1 if all goes well.

“City Hall opened today with a skeletal staff of about 10, with most working on-site for only part of the day,” said Dunwoody city spokesperson Jennifer Boettcher in an email. “They worked remotely, along with the majority of staff members, during the rest of the day.’

Other local cities are moving slower. Sandy Springs has said its City Hall would open no sooner than late May, while leaders of Atlanta and Brookhaven have indicated they are waiting for data showing a steady decline in COVID-19 cases.

It remains unclear exactly why Dunwoody is beginning its reopening now. Boettcher would say only, “We feel the time is right for a limited and phased reopening that’s designed to protect the public and employees,” and did not respond to repeated requests for the details behind that feeling.

City Councilmember Pam Tallmadge said the reopening date was an informal staff decision whose specifics were not known to her, either. But, she said, some factors include that  May 18 generally fell between some of Gov. Brian Kemp’s pandemic emergency order dates; was a Monday; and comes at a time when there is a three-week pause between City Council meetings.

“My opinion, we have to start somewhere,” Tallmadge said of the general idea of the soft reopening. “It’s not a giant leap, like [saying], ‘Six Flags is open! Let’s go, woo-hoo!’”

Tallmadge also emphasized the limited nature of the first phase, where even councilmembers are urged to stay away. “Technically it’s open, but it’s a ghost town,” she said. “Basically it’s not open. It is, and it’s not. It’s just a crack in the door.”

Returning to regular business, like in-person council meetings, is a different story with possible consequences that are already evident from the experience of other local cities. Brookhaven City Hall has been shuttered since March 14, when it abruptly closed after an employee was diagnosed with COVID-19, sending most of its leaders, as well as a Reporter journalist, into self-quarantine. In Sandy Springs, the city manager and city attorney  both contracted and recovered from the disease, forcing Mayor Rusty Paul and other officials into quarantines. And now Chamblee’s attempted return on May 14 has leaders in self-isolation for 14 days and its Civic Center shuttered for 10, according to a city spokesperson.

Asked about her comfort level with the thought of returning to in-person council meetings, Tallmadge said, “Ah, now that I’ve heard about Chamblee….”

She said she is comfortable with parts of the business reopenings and recently got a haircut and nail treatment. But those services come with state-mandated safety gear and are in businesses that are built for frequent disinfecting already, she said. City Hall, with carpets and cloth seats, she said, she would be “more cautious.” That would include wearing a mask during meetings, though that could present problems during speaking, she said.

In fact, Tallmadge said, there had been discussion about the council holding its June 1 meeting in-person, though that will not happen. The discussion included such measures as spacing councilmembers’ seats far apart and limiting public attendance. “And I’m like, why are we doing this? Then why do it?” she said.

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.