WHITMAN — Selectmen and the Board of Health have agreed on a series of recommendations aimed at gradually reopening Town Hall.
The Board of Health has concurred with Selectmen on reopening Town Hall for in-person early voting in the annual Town Election, according to according to Town Administrator Lincoln Heineman. The Board of Selectmen last month approved early voting from May 10 to 13 during regular Town Hall office hours.
The Health Board also recommended a return to in-person meetings with town officials by appointment only with each department cleaning their area after each visit. That change would go into effect immediately.
Health officials also recommended removal of the temperature screening station from the lower Town Hall entrance, leaving the hand sanitizer station in place. Department heads have hand-held temperature scanners. The Board of Health also concurred with Selectmen changes in the travel policy.
The Health Board’s recommendation for reopening Town Hall for regular business, however, was to wait until the town has been in the green for three weeks, but changed the guideline to the point at which 50 percent of statewide residents over age 16 are vaccinated against COVID-19.
Selectmen accepted the recommendation to remove the temperature screening station, agreed with the change in standard for opening after the 50-percent statewide vaccinations level has been reached and to permit one-on-one in-person meetings in Town Hall during their Tuesday, May 4 meeting.
After a lengthy discussion Selectmen voted to go along with the Health Board’s recommendation to follow the state guidelines.
“That gave me some pause when I was considering the Board of Health’s recommendation,” Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski said. “We live in Massachusetts, but we also live in Whitman. It’s been a red zone until very recently.”
The state vaccination range is now between 36-38 percent.
Whitman is currently at about 30.1 percent vaccinated, according to the latest figures available, but only 2 percent of the 4,000 residents under age 19 have been vaccinated. For the older, more vulnerable populations have higher vaccination rates — 67 percent of those age 75 and up; 71 percent of ages 65-74; and it trickles down to 20 percent of ages 20 to 29 and “falls off a cliff” under age 20.
Overall, Evans said, the town is in line with state averages.
Kowalski said he does expect the figures to improve, but urged staying with current access limitations for Town Hall at least until Town Meeting.
“I’m hopeful that things are going to change over the next month or so,” he said.
“My strong recommendation is that we open all town buildings, with the exception of the Council on Aging and, possibly, the library at the same time and make sure everything is open in the same way,” Heineman said. The COA could conceivably reopen a week later because it serves a particularly vulnerable population — which has had a chance to be vaccinated.
Selectman Dan Salvucci asked if all town buildings would be properly equipped for protecting residents, such as with Plexiglas shields. Heineman said that was tasked to the facilities manager.
“I personally, if I was to make a recommendation, would be to stay status quo until after Town Meeting,” Selectman Randy LaMattina said, noting that Whitman has been out of the red — but not yet in the green — for about two weeks.
Selectman Brian Bezanson mentioned President Biden’s announcement this week that the administration expects about 70 percent of Americans to be vaccinated by Independence Day.
“Things seem to be breaking our way,” he said, while agreeing with LaMattina that there is a need to remain cautious. Still, he said he is hearing “a lot of grumblings around town” as to why Whitman has not yet reopened.
Kowalski said the state is sending some positive signs, closing mass vaccination sites and stressing local doctors as the source for vaccines.
“Maybe that will take care of Whitman better than we’ve been taken care of before,” he said. “We’ve talked for years that the problem for Whitman is that no one can get there from here, that’s one of the reasons we don’t have a great business [tax base]. …. It’s hard to get here from any place else, likewise, it’s hard for us to get someplace else.”
The temperature screening station, used to determine admittance to Town Hall, will be removed after technical problems brought its usefulness in doubt.
“It was a good thing to try,” Heineman said. “But it’s extremely sensitive — it doesn’t really work that well.
Bezanson noted he registered a temperature of 107.9 and then gave a normal reading after he stepped back and wiped his forehead.
The hand sanitizer station will stay in place.
Heineman wondered if the next step wasn’t to accept Board of Health recommendations for in-person, socially distanced, mask-wearing meetings. Kowalski said that really meant reopening Town Hall.
“Because once Town Hall is opened, whenever it happens, I believe masks and social distancing are going to be part of it,” Kowalski said. “At least, for a while.”
Limited, face-to-face interaction is not reopening Town Hall, LaMattina said. Reopening is opening the doors so people can come and go, with no contact tracing.
The Town Meeting warrant was approved by the board, including an article permitting the moderator to allow non-voting residents or visitors to speak at town meetings.
Several W-H students have citizen’s petitions on the warrant, involving plastic bag and polystyrene bans, Evans noted.
“They are currently not allowed to speak on behalf of the bylaw proposals they’re putting forward at Town Meeting,” he said.
LaMattina asked if there was a time frame, or “plastic exit strategy” for businesses to phase out use of the materials.
Heineman said both petitions indicate a starting date of January 2022 and permit the Board of Health to exempt a retail establishment for six months if it is found that the requirement would cause undue hardship or there is need for extra time to go through an existing inventory of plastic bags.
“I’m behind the article 100 percent,” LaMattina said.
Selectmen also approved calling for a promotional list from civil service for police sergeant and lieutenant. There is no current active list for either rank.