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Jaffrey postpones Town Meeting, other towns carry on amid coronavirus fears 

  • Hand sanitizer was prominently available at Hancock's Town Meeting on Saturday, March 14, 2020. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Hand sanitizer was prominently available at Hancock's Town Meeting on Saturday, March 14, 2020. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Hand sanitizer was prominently available at Hancock's Town Meeting on Saturday, March 14, 2020. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Hancock Checklist Supervisor Roberta Bell wipes down the meetinghouse handrail during a luil in traffic before Saturday’s Town Meeting. Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • Hand sanitizer was prominently available at Hancock's Town Meeting on Saturday, March 14, 2020. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Mason Town Meeting Saturday carried on with a little hand sanitizer. Staff Photo by MEGHAN PIERCE

  • Mason Town Meeting Saturday carried on with a little sanitizer. Staff Photo by MEGHAN PIERCE—

  • Jaffrey Town Meeting was postponed Saturday, March 14, 2020. Staff Photo by MEGHAN PIERCE—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 3/14/2020 5:39:07 PM

Jaffrey Town Meeting, which was to have taken place Saturday morning, was postponed after town officials learned a town staff member had potentially been exposed to the COVID-19 coronavirus, Jaffrey Town Manager Jon Frederick said Saturday.

On Friday, town officials were informed that the spouse of a Jaffrey town employee had been contacted by the Department of Health and Human Services and told they had had contact with the seventh presumptive COVID-19 case in the state on March 4, Frederick said.

Both the Jaffrey employee and their spouse have elected to self-quarantine until at least Thursday, 14 days from the first potential exposure, to ensure they do not develop symptoms, he said. As a precautionary measure, the town canceled its Town Meeting on Saturday and announced town offices would be closed on Monday. The town plans to evaluate how to continue town operations from that point.

Jaffrey Town Meeting is now scheduled to take place on April 18.

 

About half a dozen towns in the state opted to postpone Town Meeting, according to the Concord Monitor. On Friday, Governor Chris Sununu issued a statement about the possibility of postponed town meetings.

“All communities having town meetings scheduled for tomorrow have the ability and flexibility to postpone, based on their individual comfort levels,” Governor Chris Sununu said in his statement. “The state does not have the authority to force communities to postpone or cancel. The state will work with any community that chooses to postpone, understand their options and address any issues that may arise.”

In Hancock, Town Meeting was moved from the lower hall of the Meetinghouse to upstairs where the Hancock Congregational Church is located so that voters had more room and could spread out among the pews. There was also an effort to expedite the meeting as much as possible. And people who were afraid to attend had submitted letters with their comments for the moderator read. Hand sanitizer was available as well as food. And during the meeting people sanitized the handrails in the stairwells every half hour or so.

Temple Moderator Bruce Kullgren said Saturday he carefully considered whether to hold Temple’s Town Meeting at all, and met with the Select Board and Emergency Management Director John Kieley on the matter. He said after discussion, it was decided that at least one crucial matter – the operating budget – could not wait. So, the meeting was set up, complete with extra space between seats and a canister of Lysol wipes at the microphone, for at least the first warrant article. After that, he said, he would entertain a motion to disperse the meeting to a later date.

That motion came, and Kullgren said he fully expected to see it supported. However, of those 109 people in attendance, the majority said they wanted to see it through to the end.

“We’re here now, we’re moving right along,” said Temple resident Camilla Lockwood.

“Get it done and get out of here,” Kieley agreed.

Sean Ratcliffe added that there is no guarantee the situation will be improved in a month.

Kullgren said he did receive pushback from residents on the decision to hold the meeting at all, saying he had never gotten “so many hate emails and texts” before in his time as moderator. He said he was aware of at least a few residents who had not attended because of caution, but said the 109-person turnout was not wildly out of sync with what turnout have been in other years.

“I’m sorry for that,” Kullgren said, of voters who felt they were robbed of their right to vote because they had avoided the meeting. “It was a tough decision to make as a moderator. These are unprecedented times.”

Mason Moderator Catherine Schwenk said she hadn’t had that kind of response in her town, but said it was clear the issue was on many people’s minds. The Mason Town Meeting offered wipes and tissues at the door and the voters who attended attempted to stagger their seating to avoid unnecessary close quarters. But for the most part, she said, the operation carried on without much fuss.

Mason Town Meeting carried on with 62 voters.

“We’re live free or die,” Barbara Devore said. “There are lots of regular people who didn’t show up, but they’re older,” and possibly had to consider medical conditions.

Like in Temple, the pressing matter of approving the town budget was on the mind of town officials, Selectwoman Louise Lavoie said.

“We did have those conversations yesterday and we consulted with the state’s Attorney General’s office and also looked at a bunch of different information about crowd sizes greater than 250. And then we listened to the Governor’s press release last night and he emphasized it was low risk and they were not really recommending that towns rescheduled,” Lavoie said. “We did agree we would continue because I think the most we could delay would be two weeks, so the budget would be unapproved until we met.”

“My wife got me this ‘personal care tie’,” said Lyndeborough Town Moderator Walter Holland at Town Meeting Saturday, pointing to the various cleanliness items featured on the tie such as shampoo, toothpaste and rubber ducks. Holland said he deliberately wore the tie in response to the “period of uncertainty,” caused by the Coronavirus outbreak spreading across the country.

“We’ll get through this,” Holland said.

He encouraged people to enjoy the incoming spring by “opening windows and doors,” and to go on walks, among other things. He also told the roughly 50 attendees of the meeting – which ballot clerks said was about half the usual number of town meeting voters – to check in on the elderly and those with immune deficiencies.

Donny Cole, Health Officer at the Lyndeborough Fire Department, assured residents that for the time being the town has everything under control.

“For right now, there’s nothing going on,” he said.

While there is no town-exclusive protocol to deal with the outbreak in Lyndeborough, Cole said that the current goal is to “stay on top of schools and other places,” and pointed out the existence of a recently launched state-wide hotline for the virus.

In Greenfield, Fire Department Captain Michael Borden stood at the door to take the temperatures of residents as they arrived for Town Meeting on Saturday. It was one of several measures the town implemented to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Moderator William Nichols reminded the 56 attendees to go home if they were sick, or began to feel sick, and to not shake hands with one another. The town opted for voting cards rather than verbal votes this year, and containers of hand sanitizer were available around the room. Emergency services personnel sanitized the space before the event, and discouraged residents from helping to put chairs away after the meeting, in favor of emergency personnel sanitizing the space again.

Greenville went ahead with its Town Meeting, and operated mostly as usual, Moderator Jim Lambert said, although there was one key element that was missing – the usual Lion’s Club bake sale table, a Town Meeting staple, was nixed at the last minute to prevent germ spreading. Lambert asked the crowd to put a few dollars in a donation collection jar, mentioning that the decision to eliminate the food table had come so late the goods had already been baked.

On Friday, a group of seven or eight Dublin officials got together to discuss whether town meeting should go on as planned. The group included Town Moderator Tim Clark, representatives from the police and fire departments, a selectman, the town’s emergency management director and the minister of the Dublin Community Church. Clark had received word from the state Attorney General’s office that it was the moderator’s decision whether or not to postpone to a later date.

“The moderator is the chief elections officer so it’s my call whether to go ahead or not. But it’s wise practice to meet with other people involved,” Clark said prior to the start of Town Meeting.

The group discussed a wide range of scenarios during the 90-minute meeting, but ultimately decided it would be best to move forward with things as planned.

“Our conclusion was that we should go ahead with the meeting because we are not in a dangerous situation right at the moment. We have nobody that’s tested positive in Dublin, that doesn’t mean somebody’s not infected, but our conclusion was the longer we wait the more dangerous the situation is going to get” Clark said. “We could have simply called it off or put it ahead like some towns have for 60 days or 90 days, but for those 60 or 90 days we essentially operate without a budget and this is a time when we’re going to need more resources, not fewer.

“We decided reluctantly, and I’m a cautious person and I generally am inclined to take no chances that are unnecessary, but we decided as a group the best decision was to go ahead with the meeting, get it over with, get the budget passed so we’re a fully operating town,” Clark added. “I’m going to say we could be wrong and there’s no way to know for sure, so it’s a judgment call and I wanted to make sure it wasn’t just me making that call.”

Once it was decided that Town Meeting would be held as planned, the focus shifted to the safety of everyone attending.

When residents entered Dublin Consolidated School, they did so in smaller groups and those waiting to check-in for voting registration were directed by blue tape on the ground where to stand.

“We said if we’re going to go ahead what can we do to ameliorate the risk and we came up with the six-foot stripes, so we wouldn’t get a gang of people as you always do, congregating around the check-in table,” Clark said. “I recognize we still have people congregating in the parking lot, but at least it’s in the open air, the air is moving and slightly safer.”

Chairs in the school gymnasium were spread out so people would not be sitting directly next to each other, but that plan went out the window prior to the start, which was delayed about 25 minutes to allow for residents to check-in. Clark said more people showed up than anticipated, which meant more chairs needed to be added to the back of the room. When that wasn’t enough, the room was reconfigured and the tables for the selectman and budget committee were moved on to the stage.

In an effort to get air flowing in the gym, the back door was left open for the entirety of the meeting, while the large fan on the ceiling was constantly running.

Other changes this year were eliminating informational tables inside the school and food sales, relegating them to outside the building.

Without enough sanitizer and wipes, town officials brought supplies from home.

“We’re kind of making it up as we go,” Clark said. “It all happened so fast, there was no way to plan for this.”

Click here for your town meeting coverage.

Ben Conant, Tim Goodwin, Trevor Pierce and Abbe Hamilton contributed to this story.




Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

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