Coronavirus Forces Changes to Town Meetings
Jun 17, 2020 01:46PM
By By Grace Allen
The coronavirus emergency has thrown a monkey-wrench into that essential piece of local government, the state-mandated town meeting.
Both Norfolk and Wrentham town meetings will be held this month, but details were still fluid at press time. Norfolk Town Meeting is scheduled for June 24, while Wrentham Town Meeting is scheduled for June 22.
The town administrators in both Norfolk and Wrentham acknowledged the complicated logistics around scheduling and holding a town meeting during the pandemic. For example, in March Governor Charlie Baker issued an emergency order limiting gatherings to 10 people.
“We need to hear from the state about Phase 1,” said Wrentham Town Administrator Kevin Sweet in a mid-May email, referring to Massachusetts’ coronavirus reopening plan. “There is no exemption for Town Meeting at this point. We really need to understand what will be part of the state’s approach to make local determinations.”
Even if the 10-person limit is lifted, social distancing will still need to be enforced.
Norfolk Town Administrator Blythe Robinson says Town Meeting usually draws about 200 people, potentially making the usual location, the auditorium at King Philip Middle School, too small if social distancing parameters are in place.
“We’re dealing with budget challenges like every other town,” said Robinson. “There’s passion on maintaining services, and there’s passion about reducing the budget. Lots of people may want to come, but others may have anxiety about coming.These days I seem to have more questions than answers.”
If the town can move the meeting to the high school field house in Wrentham, chairs could be spaced 6 feet apart, speculated Robinson. She noted the state may soon pass a bill allowing town meetings to be held outside a town’s boundaries.
Wrentham Town Administrator Kevin Sweet expects about 50 to 100 people to show up for Wrentham’s meeting. The King Philip High School auditorium holds around 800 people, and with social distancing rules enforced, between 100 and 150 people can fit.
Both Sweet and Robinson say precautions will be taken to protect attendees from asymptomatic or symptomatic carriers of the COVID-19 virus.
Sweet said the town is considering options for sanitizing microphones between speakers, including the use of disposable covers, or possibly not using any microphones at all.
“There will be no seating or congregating in the lobby,” said Sweet. “Six-foot marks will be placed on the floor at the check-in tables and attendees will be asked to proceed directly to the auditorium for seating.”
The check-in tables will be protected with plexiglass shields to separate the check-in personnel and residents, he added.
All attendees will have to wear masks, said both town administrators, and Robinson said the state may mandate additional precautions.
“This is a constantly changing situation,” said Sweet. “As new guidance comes out from the state and federal governments and our public health professionals, we will look to incorporate that guidance into our plans for Town Meeting.”
Both Sweet and Robinson believe each town meeting will be unusually short.
“The meeting will be scaled down to the absolute minimum amount of articles necessary to allow the operation of the town,” said Town Administrator Sweet. “The quantity and types of articles will not be what residents have seen at past Town Meetings. The plan is for the meeting to go very quickly so that everyone who attends is home quickly.”
Norfolk’s Town Meeting will be aired live on Channel 22 (Comcast) and 42 (Verizon), as well as on NCTV’s YouTube channel, available at www.norfolkcable.com.
At press time, it was unclear if Wrentham Town Meeting will also be aired live for residents staying home.