The safety of city employees and residents was at the forefront of a recent decision to close Fort Wayne's main public building, Citizens Square, Mayor Tom Henry said.
About 70 city employees are known to have contracted COVID-19 since March, Henry said, and officials traced the spread to workers bringing the virus in from outside. Most of those infected or exposed, Henry added, were firefighters.
“The reason I did that was we were having more and more of our employees in this building coming down with some form of COVID – fortunately none of them terribly serious – and we couldn't figure out what was going on,” he said in a Thursday interview with The Journal Gazette.
Firefighters live together, “so that was kind of expected,” Henry said. “When you take the firefighters out of the equation, we really haven't had that many positive cases, and I think it's because we've taken all these measures, not only with the building, but with distancing and masks and hand sanitizer and the like.”
City employees are “constantly reminded” to be vigilant and adhere to safety guidelines, he added. But with the number of residents who come to Citizens Square for services, Henry said it was important the city not take chances.
“I think the city employees are doing a great job, and there's no reason to put them in harm's way,” he said.
Citizens Square will close Monday for about eight weeks. The building is expected to reopen Jan. 19, roughly three weeks after New Year's Eve. Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's, Henry said, are the three most popular holidays “for embracing, for close physical contact.”
The decision came as local health officials warned that COVID-19 cases are trending toward exponential growth, something that left unchecked could quickly overwhelm area hospitals.
“It's getting pretty serious,” Henry said. “And I don't think the general public realizes how serious it is.”
Henry said the closure, at least in part, can also serve as an example to private businesses operating in Fort Wayne.
“I'm trying to at least make a statement that the rest of these businesses out there that can operate virtually maybe should consider doing that again, at least until there's easier access to a vaccine,” he said.
The winter months ahead will be a rough period for Fort Wayne residents, as cold weather drives more people inside, Henry added.
“I think we're in for two to three months of some real tough challenges,” he said. “I think it will peak, I think it will level off and then slowly begin to go down as these vaccines are released.”
Health care workers in Indianapolis last week indicated they believe it could take until early summer 2021 until a vaccine is readily available to the general public.
Henry agreed and said he expects any vaccines approved by the Federal Drug Administration will be first distributed to health care workers and essential personnel, then the elderly, followed by government workers and citizens.
Despite his decision to close Citizens Square to the public, Henry stressed that city work will continue. Fort Wayne's experiences throughout the spring and summer have prepared the city for a difficult winter, he said.
Many city workers, especially those with office jobs at Citizens Square, already have the ability to work from home, Henry said. And those who need to come to the office for a limited time will be able to do so.
“If they feel the need to come in, all the employees have key fobs,” he said.