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COVID-19 Roundup: Health concerns grow as Town Meeting nears

As the town enters the second week of the state’s phased reopening, residents are getting a glimpse of what will be the new normal. Town Administrator Tim Bragan is taking employees’ temperatures before allowing them into their plexiglassed areas in Town Hall. The beach will open next week with no lifeguards, no swimming lessons, and no access to the beach house. And if the current plan goes forward, Spring Town Meeting, postponed until June 20 this year, will be the first event since the pandemic began where residents will be asked to come together, albeit 6 feet apart and wearing face coverings, in a large indoor space.

Bragan told the Press that the current plan is to hold Town Meeting in two rooms at Bromfield—the gym and the library. The auditorium was ruled out because people could not pass by others seated in rows there while social distancing. He told the Select Board at its May 19 meeting that he had measured the space and believed the gym and library could hold 200 to 219 people socially distanced at 6 feet apart. If the number of attendees goes beyond what those two rooms could hold, the meeting would have to be recessed and continued at another location on another day.

Town Administrator Tim Bragan puts signs on the doors of Town Hall before the building reopened May 26. (Photo by Lisa Aciukewicz)

Bragan also provided the board with details of how the meeting would be different. The check-in system would have to be altered to allow for social distancing, and once the meeting was underway, check-in would be closed. Attendees would have to wear masks, and seats could not be moved together for any reason. Bathrooms would have to be periodically sanitized before and during the meeting. No guests would be allowed, including possibly department heads unless they live in Harvard, with the exception of Bragan and Town Counsel Mark Lanza. There would be no tables for boards and committees.

Bragan said Assistant Town Administrator Marie Sobalvarro is looking into other large indoor options in Devens, as well as the Boxboro Regency Hotel, where Boxborough will be holding its town meeting on June 22. He said that current laws allow towns to move meetings to a neighboring town if a location cannot be found locally that will provide ample social distancing. A bill currently in the House Ways and Means Committee would allow towns with representational town meetings to hold a virtual town meeting, but contains nothing that would allow it for towns like Harvard that have open town meetings.

The plan to move ahead with an indoor meeting has caused consternation at the Board of Health. In a meeting on May 19, member Libby Levison expressed concern that town officials were making plans for an indoor venue without consulting the Board of Health. The board invited Town Moderator Bill Barton to its May 26 meeting and told him its primary concern is the possibility of an indoor town meeting becoming a superspreader event. Member Sharon McCarthy said that risk of infection is a combination of toxicity of the infecting agent and the dose, and “when you have a lot of people indoors with recirculated air, you’re increasing the dose.” She added that superspreader events happen when people are in an enclosed space for a long period of time. “Considering the average age of people who come to town meetings, the Select Board is asking people to take a risk that’s not necessary.”

Everyone on the board agreed that an outdoor venue would be safer, and McCarthy said the Massachusetts Association of Health Boards (MAHB) is more comfortable with that as well. The town had previously considered the grounds of Fruitlands Museum, but the board was concerned about its uneven terrain, the lack of restrooms, and the danger of disease from ticks and mosquitos in that area. But board members think other outdoor areas should be considered, such as the athletic field in front of the library where graduation is typically held. Barton said he worried about sun and heat in an unshaded venue, but board Chair Tom Phillipou said people could bring umbrellas and the ambulance could set up cooling stations.

Concern for older attendees

Phillipou also voiced his concern for the safety of people over age 60, who are most at risk for serious illness from COVID-19. Council on Aging Director Debbie Thompson told the Press she expressed that same concern at a department head meeting on May 26. “We’ve been telling our seniors to stay home, and now we’re asking them to go to a town meeting,” she said. She added that if seniors stay away, that would skew the demographic of the meeting, which includes an article requesting funding for an addition to the senior center.

According to a document prepared by the legal counsel for the MAHB, the town moderator must consult with local public health officials and the board of selectmen “to determine whether it is appropriate to recess and continue a town meeting previously called.” The moderator does not need to “accede to the wishes of the local board of health,” but if the board “reasonably believes that holding a town meeting could place the attendees in a position of danger, and if the moderator refuses to postpone the town meeting, the local board of health is always free to exert its traditional statutory powers.” Those powers under Massachusetts General Law 11, section 95 to 105, grant the board “broad authority to implement safeguards to prevent the spread of infectious disease.”  

The board voted unanimously to send a letter to the Select Board expressing the Board of Health’s need to be involved with town meeting plans. Bragan told the Press earlier that day that the Board of Health and the moderator would be invited to the June 2 Select Board meeting, where final decisions about Town Meeting are expected to be made. Bragan said postponement of Spring Town Meeting was a possibility, but added there’s no way of knowing if things will be better when the new date comes around. “We don’t have a crystal ball,” he said.

What happens if Spring Town Meeting is postponed again?

In a normal year, Massachusetts General Law states that town meetings must be held no later than June 30. That date is the end of the fiscal year, so the deadline allows for approval of the next fiscal year’s budget. 

But on April 3, Gov. Charlie Baker signed legislation that allows an exception for “an immediate threat to the health or safety of persons or property that prevents the completion of town business” if the governor has declared a state of emergency. That allows towns to delay town meetings this year beyond June 30. If postponed, the new town meeting date must be no more than 30 days from the currently scheduled date. Further postponements are allowed until the state of emergency is rescinded.

If a town chooses to postpone, the new law allows approval of expenditures for up to one-twelfth of the prior fiscal year’s budget each month until a new budget is adopted. Revolving funds may continue to be used at the level of spending authorized in fiscal 2020. Town Administrator Tim Bragan said he and Finance Director Lori Bolasevich are looking into how that might work, and he will provide that information to the Select Board when it meets on June 2, when Town Meeting plans are expected to be finalized.


What are other towns doing?

So far, one nearby town, Concord, has postponed its Town Meeting beyond June 30. According to a May 11 COVID-19 update on Concord’s website, the meeting, originally scheduled for June 22, “will be further continued, at least until late July, and ideally until late September.” The decision was based on “local public health conditions, restrictions ordered by the governor, the town’s ability to ensure everyone’s safety, and the town’s ability to continue operations while delaying town meeting appropriations.”

Westford Town Manager Jodi Roff told the Press that Westford voted on May 26 to move ahead with its June 20 Town Meeting, but to move it outdoors to the football field outside Westford Academy. “I was very pleased that the board approved holding it June 20, because there’s no guarantee that things will get better in the near future,” she said, but added that the outdoor location was chosen because it would be safer.

Roff said the Westford selectmen took the extra step of streamlining the warrant, reducing it to 18 articles, in the hope that the meeting, which will start at 10 a.m., will be short. That will limit the use of bathrooms, which must be sanitized periodically under current state regulations, and reduce the amount of time people will have to spend in the sun. She added that the town is looking at options for providing shade, but hats and umbrellas will be encouraged. Chairs will be spaced on the goal line and the 15-yard line, 8 to 10 feet apart. If it rains, the meeting will be recessed and continued to another date.

A survey of 14 other nearby small towns showed that two are also planning outdoor meetings. Littleton will hold its June 13 meeting at Alumni Field outside Littleton Middle School with a rain date of June 14. Groton’s June 13 meeting is planned for the track and field behind Florence Roche Elementary School, but the town moderator also said he will consult with the town’s public health and safety officials again before the meeting “to determine whether the public health emergency continues to prevent voters from attending.” If he decides that is the case, he may postpone the meeting further.

Kathleen Rocco, executive assistant to the town administrator in Lancaster, told the Press that although its June 22 Town Meeting is scheduled to be held in its usual place in the Mary Rowlandson Elementary School auditorium, the town is still considering moving it to an outdoor location. But Rocco said there is no clear choice. “How do you vet something properly?” she said. She added that the town is waiting on guidance from the state. But that guidance may not be coming. Harvard health board member Sharon McCarthy said at the board’s May 26 meeting that the Massachusetts Department of Public Health has not yet issued any guidance on town meetings and has not mentioned any plans to do so.

—Joan Eliyesil



By the Numbers: COVID-19 weekly update

Harvard’s cumulative number of confirmed COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began—as reported by the state—remains at 16 on May 27. Three deaths have been reported to the Press but the total number of fatalities among current and recent town residents is not known.

Statewide, the increase in numbers of confirmed cases, hospitalizations, and deaths continued to slow for the fourth week in a row. In the week between May 19 and May 26, the number of confirmed cases grew by 5,728, far lower than the 8,600-case increase the previous week. The number of deaths caused by the disease during that time period increased by 535, down from an increase of 797 the prior week.

Locally, the number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 at Emerson Hospital fell slightly in the week between May 19 and May 26, from 31 to 29. The hospital’s peak was 52 patients on May 10. For that same week, the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients at the Memorial and University campuses of the UMass Medical Center in Worcester remained at 143 after reaching a peak of 192 on May 11.

The number of inmates at the Federal Medical Center in Devens who are currently positive for COVID-19 jumped from 18 to 24 in the week between May 19 and May 26. The number of staff members who are COVID-19 positive remained at two for the second week in a row, and no further deaths occurred. One inmate died of COVID-19 complications on May 4; up until that point, there had been no positive cases of COVID-19 at the prison.

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