WHITMAN — Faced with difficult choice, the Board of Selectmen in a Monday, Jan. 11 meeting, voted to indefinitely pass over closing the warrant and setting the date for a special Town Meeting this month, backing the Board of Health.
Selectman Brian Bezanson was absent.
The decision came after an angry Fire Chief Timothy Grenno, who also serves as the town’s emergency management director, criticized town employees who failed to take COVID-19 seriously and reported to work despite testing positive — and forcing the closure of two town offices.
Interim Town Administrator Lisa Green had prefaced Grenno’s report on the most recent COVID cases in town by saying, “some of them are kind of disturbing.”
“It’s very aggravating right now,” Grenno said in following up an email he had sent the board earlier in the day. “Numbers are on the rise, we’re seeing anywhere from 10 to 20 new cases a day in this community. It is not a hoax, as some people may think it is — it’s real.”
He said that, for a second time in as many weeks a town office had to be shut down, “because an employee went to work sick.” Last week, the collector’s office had to be closed and the DPW office is now closed because of a single employee in each office.
“This board has instructed town employees several times, as far as I know, that if you’re sick — if you don’t feel good, if you have a headache, if you have a sore throat — stay home,” he said. “But for some reason, ignorance plays out, and people just go to work.”
Grenno said he is passionate about the pandemic and asked Selectmen to consider the need to discipline employees who knowingly go to work ill and create a cluster of COVID infections.
“We’re a year into this, it’s not rocket science,” he said.
Grenno spoke of a conversation he had Monday with a DPW superintendent who has been doing everything right — staying away from friends, going on hikes with his wife away from other people and avoiding all other social interactions — yet he now has to quarantine for seven days because a coworker reported to work despite being ill.
“It’s pretty tiring and pretty aggravating, and it’s very irresponsible of the town employees who are doing this,” Grenno said. “They need to be held accountable.”
While Selectman Randy LaMattina said the town’s out-of-state travel policy for town employees needs to be updated, for the time-being that type of travel should not be allowed. He also firmly stands by a 10-day quarantine, mirroring the state’s policy.
Massachusetts has reached the “severe outbreak” status for the first time during the pandemic on Monday, Jan. 11, according to data tracking nonprofit COVID Act Now.
“At this point, this is about minimizing risk, minimizing exposure,” LaMattina said. “There’s acceptable risk, and then there’s some that we don’t have to put ourselves out there for. … The increase we’re seeing is tremendous.”
In fire and law enforcement services, there is now about triple the number of cases than in the spring.
“We can help this problem,” LaMattina said. “Helping the problem is getting strong on the problem, and that’s what we need to do.”
A policy update is expected to be ready for a vote at the next meeting.
COVID vaccinations will begin to be administered to fire crews on Wednesday. Vaccinations for the town’s at-risk population will be set up at Housing Authority and some other sites during the winter and spring, with residents asked to consult their primary care physicians, pharmacies or other sources offerint the vaccine, until the general population is scheduled for a drive-through vaccination effort.
“Even if you’re vaccinated, you may still spread it,” Selectman Dr. Carl Kowalski and Grenno stressed.
COVID considerations were also behind the postponement of the special Town Meeting planned for later this month.
“I do not want to take away from anything on the Town Meeting warrant,” LaMattina said. “I think it’s all necessary. … I oppose having this strictly out of safety concerns.”
But, he noted, the Board of Health does not recommend holding the Town Meeting at this time, stating it is too dangerous for public health.
Selectmen Chairman Daniel Salvucci suggested that, if the DPW thinks to force main issues will not lead to a sewer main break this winter, the issue could go before the May Town Meeting.
“My fear is that we have a major break and we put contaminated material in neighborhoods,” Salvucci said, adding that Brockton may also fine the town.
“We’re talking about a sewer leak as opposed to gathering a group of people together, starting an event that gets several people sick and you have somebody die,” LaMattina said. “There is no life that you can equate to me in dollars.”
DPW Commissioner Kevin Cleary said he would have no issue with a postponement outside the fear of the unknown, and suggested reaching out to state and local conservation officials if there were questions.
“It’s not dealing with the unknown, it’s the risk of the known that I’m worried about,” Kowalski said.
The meeting opened with an executive session during which the board conducted a strategy session regard to a three-year contract offered to new Town Administrator Lincoln Heineman. They returned to open session to approve the contract and announce he would begin work on Monday, Feb. 8.
“The salary is consistent with market values,” Kowalski said. “We have gone over all the terms of the contract and voted positively for it in executive session.”
The public vote formalized the approval.