AYER – COVID-19-related items peppered the agenda at the selectmen’s meeting Tuesday night, with only Town Manager Robert Pontbriand and one board member – Shaun Copeland – in the meeting room at town hall and others attending via Zoom.
Remote participants also included Police Chief William Murray, Fire Chief Robert Pedrazzi and DPW Superintendent Mark Wetzel.
One topic on the table was personal protective equipment, or PPE, such as masks, which everyone is expected to wear in public if they can’t stay six feet from others, per social distancing guidelines.
All departments have been asked to inventory their PPE supplies and estimate future use over the next few months, Pontbriand said. This assessment is even more important as the state opens up again and preparations get underway for town elections and the annual town meeting.
Petrazzi said the Fire Dept. is healthy and on task but could use more N-95 masks.
“It’s been hard to get (them) from our vendors,” he said and wait time can be as long as eight weeks. But MEMA (state emergency management agency) helps out when the supply runs low. Firefighters can pick up masks from an agency site in Tewksbury, he said, or the National Guard will deliver them.
Anticipating a “resurgence” of the virus this fall, Petrazzi said he has applied for a grant that could provide up to $5,000 to buy more masks. In addition, he noted an EMS collection program in which some durable masks are gathered up to be decontaminated and re-used.
Police Chief William Murray said his department is all set, with employees healthy and working as scheduled. They need a new dispatcher, though, due to a recent resignation. Anyone interested in applying for the job can contact the Police Dept. he said.
In terms of the town’s response to the state’s recently minted re-start plan, now in phase one, Pontbriand said the proposed May 26 deadline is too soon to re-open town hall to the public, although employees can safely return to work on that date and all town departments can resume their normal schedules.
“Realistically, we’ll need more time,” he said, with a to-do list that includes a cap on how many people can be in the building at once, erecting plexi-glass safety shields at service windows and mapping out six-foot distancing parameters, with signs.
He suggested substituting “until further notice” versus a specific deadline for re-opening town hall, emphasizing that the wait won’t be too long. The selectmen agreed. So that’s how it stands, for now.
Elsewhere in town, the library and Council on Aging will stay closed, for now. “We want to get it right and keep everybody safe.”
The same goes for public meetings, which will stay virtual for now, he said, noting that many area communities are doing pretty much the same thing.
“We;re actively moving forward, but we need more time,” he said. For now, “the real focus..is the return to work plan” the governor laid out.
Different challenges surfaced around recreation areas such as the town beach, set to open June 12, and Pirrone Park, including sports fields, the playground and the dog-walking area.
Pontbriand said he’s been meeting with the parks director to talk about those issues in light of the state-wide prohibition on gatherings of more than 10 people. “We need to address that as a limiting factor,” he said.
Which brings up the town election, which is still on for June 2.
Based on state rules, only 25 percent of employees can be in the building at a time, Pontbriand said, as well as use of public restrooms, with “an attestment” sent to the state, detailing the town’s plans.
“Employees are very concerned” he said, “especially (about) the mask part…you can’t force people (who come in) to wear them.”
Other concerns employees raised included how often public areas must be cleaned.
Most problems can be solved without much ado at town hall and the aim is not to “drag this out” but to reopen the building as soon as possible, Pontbriand told the board. “We’re in good shape.”
But re-tooling the senior center and the library for their respective re-openings is a different story. “It’s a huge problem” in those buildings, he said.
Segue to the election and annual town meeting, both of which generate gatherings of more than 10 people.
“Right now, we’re cautiously optimistic we can go ahead with the election as planned,” Pontbriand said. That is June 2, from 7 am to 8 pm at town hall. But the absentee ballot option is available as well.
The facilities director and the town clerk are working on a “single flow” plan to get people in and out at a safe distance from each other, one way, with marks on the floor to direct them to and from the voting place. That is, in one door and out another. And it must be ADA compliant.
Voting booths will be cleaned frequently and people are asked to wear masks, if they’re able to, Pontbriand said. Plus, election workers who don’t have masks will be supplied with them. “If we can’t go ahead as planned, we’ll need to make changes,” he said. “We’ll keep you posted.”
On to the annual town meeting, set for June 15.
Pontbriand said a bill that passed in the house and is now in the senate calls for allowing towns with a quorum for town meeting attendance to lower the ceiling, which could be as few as five people in Ayer, he said. Average attendance is about 200, he said.
The ATM venue – the Ayer Shirley Regional High School auditorium – seats 500 people. With social distancing parameters applied, it could seat about 65 voters, spaced several seats and a row apart. Overflow would be directed to the commons area, with the meeting video-streamed live and an assistant moderator appointed. “Other towns have done this” and it worked well, Pontbriand noted.
The sign-in area will also be reconfigured for social distancing.
One issue planners struggled with was placing microphones in the aisles for comment and questions. Too risky. So that’s out in the current vision. Instead, people would be recognized “from their seats,” and would need to “project” rather than speak into a mic.
Chairman Scott Houde said that input would need to be repeated (by the moderator or the town clerk) so that APAC – which films the sessions for live and later broadcast on public access TV channels –could pick up what the speakers said.
Selectman Jannice Livingstone pointed out another problem. Some people can’t “project” loud enough, she said. She suggested wrapping the mic instead, like equipment in a dentist’s office.
Another alternative could be to submit questions and comments in writing, Pontbriand said. But that could raise legal issues. “We’re looking into it,” he said.
“It’s a true democratic process,” he said of town meeting. But these are not normal times.
Mid-pandemic, rules might have to change, temporarily at least. He opined that dilemmas like this are common. “We’re not alone…more than 200 towns haven’t held their town meetings yet,” he said.
One thing he’s fairly certain of. “We’ll probably ask folks to wear masks,” he said. “Work with us!”
Selectman Shaun Copeland, harking back to the town election, wondered if the polling place could be moved, say to the high school, where it would be simpler to route voters in and out, safety distanced.
Maybe, but as Pontbriand pointed out, the numbers would likely be manageable, either way.
The November presidential election is another story, typically drawing a much larger crowd, as many as 5,000 voters, he said. For that one, the town might have to set up to polling places, the board agreed.
“We’ll be talking more” about these matters, Pontbriand said, indicating further discussion at subsequent sessions leading up to the dates in question, which could still change at this point.