City, town halls prep for public access

  • Nothampton City Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Easthampton Municipal Building GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Holyoke City Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Amherst Town Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 5/31/2021 7:43:45 PM

NORTHAMPTON — As businesses reopened in limited capacities throughout the pandemic, many town and city halls have remained closed to the public since March 2020. But with Massachusetts lifting its state of emergency order on June 15, and masks no longer required in most settings as of Saturday, municipal services are preparing to welcome residents back into buildings.

The shift toward pre-pandemic life came as a surprise to some, said Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz.

Many had been under “kind of a working assumption that Aug. 1 was going to be the day that things would reopen,” Narkewicz said. “It was a little bit of a quick change of plans that the governor made the plan that he did, so we’re recalibrating our plans to fit that.”

While the city will lift its restrictions on office capacity next month, City Hall will open to the public at a slightly later date, with its full reopening slated for July 6.

“I wanted to provide city staff time to reorganize internally over the month of June, then be prepared to reopen for normal business hours,” Narkewicz said, adding that the extra time also gives staff and members of the public more time to become fully vaccinated.

A return to in-person meetings are “a hot topic right now,” Narkewicz said, adding that he supports Gov. Charlie Baker’s choice to order legislation extending virtual meeting allowances through Sept 1.

“I think that’s wise,” Narkewicz said. “I think (Baker) understands that there will still be people who serve on these elected commissions or as volunteers who aren’t comfortable because of health concerns.”

The Northampton Senior Center will not be included in this initial opening, as the regional vaccination site set up at the center is set to run through the end of June, Narkewicz said. Once the clinic has concluded, it will need to be dismantled and replaced with the Senior Center’s regular setup. The city has yet to set an opening date for the center.

Easthampton will take a similar approach, reopening to the public on July 1.

“Operationally, we’re just not ready to open our doors” on June 15, said Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle. “I need to get all my employees back in at once, make sure everything is in place, make sure everyone feels safe.”

A day after City Hall reopens, Easthampton will begin holding municipal meetings on a hybrid basis.

Under the ordinance, any group holding a meeting must have a majority of its members present in person. The nine-member City Council, for instance, must have at least five of its members physically present. Remaining members and the public can choose to attend meetings in-person or virtually.

The decision to keep a remote option in place came easily, LaChapelle said.

“The rates of participation in Easthampton over the pandemic are, for a bunch of reasons, through the roof wonderful,” LaChapelle said. “And why the heck would we want to shut that down?”

Amherst will open town offices earlier than its neighbors, with public access resuming June 1, according to an announcement by the town. The earlier date will come with more precautions, however. Unlike Northampton and Easthampton, visitors will be required to wear a mask in Town Hall and distance themselves from others in the building. Town officials will limit the building to a single point of entry and help direct people to their destinations.

Public meetings will indefinitely resume on a virtual basis, according to town officials. 

The town will otherwise follow state guidelines and planned to lift nearly all emergency measures, including mask-wearing, on Saturday. The state has set aside some exceptions to this rule for locations such as health care facilities, inside school buildings and on public transportation.

Holyoke is also opening City Hall on June 1 with some restrictions in place. Acting Mayor Terence Murphy announced last week that visitors will initially be required to wear masks in City Hall, though he expects the city will otherwise follow the state’s guidance to lift the mask mandate.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.

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