Dubuque County Sheriff Joe Kennedy has proposed that the county take advantage of the record low occupancy of the jail, caused by responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, to begin a project that could help keep inmates safe from outbreak.

As outbreaks of the coronavirus inside jails around the world turned particularly deadly, Dubuque County legal, court and law enforcement officials enacted measures to curb imprisonment at the county jail, Kennedy told the Dubuque County Board of Supervisors last week. These were efforts to avoid a similar outbreak locally.

Those efforts were aided by the fact that with most businesses closed and events canceled, there was less traffic and public activity in general.

That the Dubuque County Jail has not had such an outbreak could be a result of those protocols.

A direct result, though, is that the number of inmates plummeted, from 190 just before the pandemic hit Iowa to 100 as of this week.

Supervisor Ann McDonough, a retired attorney, said the jail has never seen occupancy that low since its construction.

Kennedy said the low population opened a window of opportunity to complete a preventative project with the least amount of disruption.

The project would wall off the connection between two floors of the jail’s two existing 49-person cell pods, cutting the capacity of each in half.

“One of the things brought to the forefront with COVID is if anyone (carrying the virus) got into one of those pod units, we would quickly have almost 50 people with it,” Kennedy said. “This change would give us better segregation for the inmates and give us a better way to isolate those people, if a group would get sick.”

The project would cost around $700,000, according to Kennedy, and take eight weeks to complete. He proposed using the $500,000 ending balance he expects his department to have at the end of the fiscal year to begin the project.

This is not the first time supervisors have been presented with this project. It was one piece of a grander, $26 million full renovation the sheriff pitched to the board in February.

In addition to allowing for action in case of an outbreak, Kennedy said the project would also help separate violent and nonviolent offenders — perhaps preventing incidents like a recent one, in which a man charged with attempted murder broke bones in the face of a man in for minor marijuana charges.

Kennedy also said it would allow more efficient staffing decisions both in the jail and elsewhere for his department.

McDonough supported the project and the plan to begin soon.

“The space availability allows us to tackle this by the end of August,” she said.

Supervisor Jay Wickham, though, said that with negative economic impacts of the pandemic unknown, but sure to be significant, he was wary of jumping into the project.

“We should look really hard at big projects like this,” he said.

Supervisors agreed to hold a larger work session on budget issues later this month, which would include discussion on the proposed jail project.