WHITMAN — The Board of Selectmen on Tuesday, Aug. 11 addressed COVID-19 issues centering on Gov. Charlie Baker’s new travel policy and resident complaints about Town Hall access. Selectmen voted unanimously to maintain the current access policy for Town Hall and to support the travel policy.
“Things aren’t really getting any better,” said Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski. “We’ve been lucky in this state because we’ve kept it controlled so far.”
Town Administrator Frank Lynam said he has researched surrounding towns as to how town hall access is being handled. In Whitman, all employees are at work and delivering all requested town services through alternative means. A drop box is available for payment of municipal bills, which can also be paid by USPS or online. Ballots mailed to residents for voting may also be placed in the drop box.
Selectman Justin Evans asked how the state primary election on Sept. 1 — and the week of early voting before that — would be handled.
Lynam said that, just as with the local election in June, residents would be required to enter by one door and exit by another with rope lines directing flow and surfaces continually disinfected.
For the primary, Town Clerk Dawn Varley has recommended that other Town Hall offices be closed both for the primary and the Nov. 3 general election. The board also unanimously voted to support that recommendation.
“If you have something that requires direct communication and contact with a town employee, we are handling those on a schedule basis,” Lynam said. Two meeting areas have been set up in the Town Hall auditorium spaced to permit both privacy and social distancing. Those meetings require an appointment.
“The question now becomes should we open the door and just let people come in at will?” Lynam asked the board.
Everyone currently entering the Town Hall, for either appointments or to work must enter through the handicapped entrance and pause for a temperature scan.
“If we open to the public in an on-demand basis, we’re not going to be able to do that unless we hire somebody to attend to the door,” he said. “The significant majority of surrounding towns are doing exactly what we’re doing.”
The other towns Lynam surveyed have closed senior centers and libraries, are maintaining town services and requiring appointments to enter the town halls.
Of four town halls he found that had open access, two required people to enter through a single door staffed by an attendant.
While Lynam said he would abide by the board’s decision, he advocated waiting at least until school is back in session to see how things progress.
“I would just hate to see us eliminate those limitations and then have an employee contract COVID,” he said. The town of Fairhaven has already seen that happen, according to Lynam.
Selectman Randy LaMattina asked if there were any services not being provided under the current access policy.
Lynam said the passport program (almost all international travel is affected by a ban on U.S. travelers because of the pandemic), and one person complained about what they felt was their inability to get a marriage license. He spoke to the town clerk, who reported that office is working on marriage licenses by appointment Tuesdays from about noon to 7 p.m.
“To my knowledge, we are not preventing anyone from obtaining the services that they would expect from the town of Whitman, other than the Senior Center,” he said.
LaMattina urged that the board continue to err on the side of caution.
“We’ve been pretty lucky as a town,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve had any employees exposed. If we’re not sacrificing services, I wound say status quo.”
Selectman Dan Salvucci agreed the town should maintain current practices until Gov. Baker changes guidelines or announced a vaccine is available.
Baker’s travel policy — pertaining to travel to states where the virus has not yet declined or leveled off — has circulated to all town departments. “Let’s be practical about this,” he said. “We’re in a pandemic —no question on anybody’s part that we’re there — [and] we have to do some responsible things to help control the spread, and one of those is limiting your exposure by not traveling to places where there are problems.”
He asked the board to adopt the policy to help manage the pandemic.
Selectman Brian Bezanson asked whether there were exemptions for town employees or essential workers.
“Unlike the original COVID requirement, this does not exempt public safety personnel. This applies to everyone,” Lynam said.
It also requires that people traveling on vacation certify they are COVID-free or undergo a 14-day quarantine.
Lynam said a problem lies in the time it takes to get test results — sometimes as long as 10 days in the worst-case scenario.
It does not, however, apply to shopping day trips.
“For example, Rhode Island’s on the ‘bad list.’ If you drive across the border to buy a six-pack or whatever, and then come back home, that’s not considered travel,” he said. “This is self-reporting, too. People will have to self-certify that they’ve done what’s necessary to comply with the policy, and that’s a regulation promulgated by the governor’s office.”
Evans said he initially shared Bezanson’s question, but noted the order exempts critical infrastructure employees who come into the state to do work on that infrastructure.
“If we were called in as mutual aid for a Providence fire, they’d be exempt,” Evans said, asking if the town could specifically vote in the test requirement to make it clearer.
Lynam said he tried to avoid writing in anything that further limits compliance with the policy.
“The regulation is specific,” he said. “Whether our policy says it or not, if they’re violating the regulation, then they are in violation. … I’m not sure that it’s necessary to dually define it.”
Assistant Town Administrator Lisa Green said she has been doing some research into COVID testing, noting Baker has issued new testing guidelines to make it easier for asymptomatic people to obtain tests. However, one must call a test site to make an appointment. But one location in Brockton disconnects people who press the prompt as neither a Brockton Community Health patient nor symptomatic. Wait times for Community Health patients are long. At other testing facilities, there is a cost that requires a reimbursement process and a wait for about seven days for results.
“It’s difficult for people who have vacation plans either out of state or who have booked or purchased tickets to an event prior to any of this going into effect, and if they don’t go they aren’t refunded any money,” she said. “So they’re not making it very easy.”
Bezanson asked if quarantine periods were on personal time.
“Part of the policy intent is to address the difference between discretion and need,” Lynam said. He and his wife, he said as an example, were planning to go to Vermont next week, but have decided to cancel that trip.
“The issue is the notice for travel requires notification of the employer,” he said. “I think it’s irresponsible for an employee to decide on their own, ‘We’re going to travel somewhere, and if we have to quarantine it’s your problem.’”
He said there has to be some give and take. Sick time would be permitted to be used for quarantine, however, Lynam said, adding that the town has used working from home as an option.
Both Lynam and Evans said they have had to cancel plans for travel to weddings this year.
Greeen said people who still want to go on with vacations can accommodate their travel and event plans.