TUPELO • Government offices are now open again, but anyone needing to take care of business in downtown Tupelo should be prepared to stand in line and wait.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, most government offices have instituted new protocols and are limiting the number of people allowed inside the building at one time. That can mean standing in line, possibly outside.
Only 10 citizens at a time are allowed into the old Lee County Courthouse where the tax collector and tax assessor offices are located. Tupelo Municipal Court will allow several folks in the court but only a handful in the lobby. Both the Lee County Justice Center and Lee County Justice Court are only allowing one person per office into the building at a time.
People can avoid the wait by paying online (where available), by mailing payments or by using drop boxes outside each government building. But if someone has a question or just wants to pay in person, there could be a wait involved.
There have been long lines most of the week outside of the old courthouse where people are trying to pay property taxes or renew a car tag. People are allowed in the building only through the west entrance (Broadway Street). Masks or face coverings are required, but staff are handing out disposable masks to people who need them.
To ensure social distancing, only 10 people are allowed to stand in line inside the building at a time. Any overflow in the line goes out the door and down the sidewalk toward the Lyric Theatre. When people finish their business inside, they must exit through the south entrance.
Tax collector Leroy Belk has staff at a half-dozen windows to help the process move along quickly. One additional change is the tax collector no longer accepts cash. Payments must be by check, money order, debit card or credit card.
Tupelo Municipal Court fully reopened Thursday with new safety guidelines, said court director John Knight.
“We are allowing only eight people in the court at one time and only three in the lobby,” Knight said. “We have bailiffs stationed in the lobby to control things. When one person leaves, we will let one person inside.”
In the lobby where people can pay fines and restitution, there has always been a glass pay window separating the staff from the customers. Officials added a piece of Plexiglas in the courtroom to separate the judge and the court clerk from the people coming into the court.
“Everything went pretty smoothly,” Knight said of the first day.
At the Lee County Justice Center, which houses several county offices including the circuit clerk and court, chancery clerk and court, as well as Lee County Solid Waste, only a handful of people are allowed in at a time.
“Right now we are only allowing one person per office into the building at a time,” said Lee County Circuit Clerk Camille Dulaney.
That means if two people have questions about their garbage bills, one will have to wait outside the massive building until the other is finished.
At Lee County Justice Court, administrator Debbie Berryman said only two people are allowed in the office at a time, one on the civil side and one on the criminal side.
“If someone needs to swear out an affidavit, the judge will meet them at the door,” Berryman said. “Unless it is for a protective order, we are not letting people in to meet with the judges.”
Justice court handles civil cases under $3,500, and misdemeanor criminal cases and traffic tickets issued outside a municipality. Berryman said they have not held court since early March because of the pandemic but are working on a protocol when court resumes in June.
Large civil cases often have 20 or more defendants, which exceeds the guideline for indoor gathering size. In addition to a two-month backlog of regular cases, the state’s moratorium on evictions will end June 1, opening the way to a host of new court cases.