Municipalities close facilities, cancel meetings to stem coronavirus spread

  • JERREY ROBERTSEasthampton Municipal Building, 50 Payson Avenue GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 3/16/2020 8:43:59 PM

EASTHAMPTON — Municipalities across the region are taking a variety of steps to halt the spread of a novel coronavirus, including closing buildings, canceling meetings and encouraging municipal workers to work remotely.

“The first and foremost thing is public health,” said Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle. “Public health, public health, public health.”

Steps that the city has taken include closing the municipal building at 50 Payson Ave. at least through April 6, encouraging municipal workers to work remotely if possible, and canceling all nonessential municipal meetings.

“It’s a health risk, and we don’t want people meeting,” LaChapelle said.

Beginning on Monday, Amherst, Northampton, Southampton, Chesterfield and South Hadley closed all municipal buildings to the public, although an exception was made for the police station in Amherst. Hatfield ordered its town offices closed effective Tuesday.

Northampton and Amherst declared a local state of emergency on Monday. Non-emergency city workers will soon work remotely if possible, Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz’s statement said. Only city governmental and regulatory bodies that must meet will continue to hold public meetings and they will do so remotely. The public will be able to participate remotely.

Residents were asked to defer all non-emergency inquiries to the city.

Although Westhampton has not officially closed all its municipal buildings to the public yet, a meeting to discuss that was scheduled for Monday evening. The Westhampton Public Library has closed already, and municipal office spaces are currently unofficially closed to the public.

Williamsburg closed its government buildings to the public on Friday, and Hadley closed its government offices on Monday.

Across the county, boards and committees that do meet will not meet in person.

Last week, the governor signed an executive order suspending parts of the Open Meeting Law, an action that now allows all members of a public body to participate in a meeting of their body remotely.

Easthampton City Planner Jeff Bagg said that he is working with City Council President Peg Conniff, Easthampton Media, and Ashley Barstow, the systems administrator for the city, to set up a system to conduct remote meetings.

Bagg said no such system is currently in place.

“We want to take the two weeks to set that up,” he said.

The two meetings that Bagg said he knew would be taking place during the shutdown are a School Committee meeting Monday evening and a Wednesday meeting of the City Council. Bagg said public comment will be suspended for Wednesday’s council meeting, and the expectation is that councilors will attend it remotely.

Bagg also said that the March 25 public meeting of the Board of Public Works, where action on raising water and sewer rates could be taken, will be rescheduled.

Because the BPW meeting contains a public hearing, Bagg said it will require even more technical effort to allow members of the public to participate in it remotely live.

LaChapelle said she is looking to get a legal opinion to require that non-essential personnel be required to work from home. She also said that she is looking into the legality of suspending nonessential municipal operations, and that government would continue to function even with a suspension.

Amherst

The town buildings shutdown includes Town Hall, the Senior Center and the Jones Library, although the police station will remain open to the public.

Meetings of all public bodies, except governing and adjudicatory bodies, have also been canceled. Governing bodies include Town Council and the School Committee and adjudicatory bodies include the Board of Health.

The public bodies that will meet will do so remotely, as there is a system in place that allows for remote public comment and participation. However, Assistant Town Manager David Ziomek said that until at least April 7, only the Town Council will be meeting.

Ziomek also said that many of the town’s staff will be working from home.

“We want to continue with as many projects, initiatives and grants as we can,” Ziomek said.

At Amherst’s transfer station, “Take it or Leave it,” “The Book Shed,” returnable bottles and Styrofoam and bubble wrap collection have all been suspended, although the station remains open.

Other towns

All meetings of South Hadley boards, commissions and committees have been canceled for the week of March 16.

Saturday saw the town of Goshen enter into a local state of emergency. Municipal buildings were also shut to the public at 5 p.m. on Saturday until further notice.

“Doing that declaration eases some of the procurement requirements,” said interim Town Administrator Dawn Scaparotti, who also said it allows the town to overspend on some line items and allows the police and fire chief to be more flexible in their staffing.

She also said that this was done to protect town employees and residents.

“Essential work will continue through phone and email,” said Scaparotti.

The emergency declaration announcement also states that most boards and committees will not be meeting and there will also be no Council on Aging programs or events.

While the Hilltown Food Pantry will remain open out of the town office’s lower level, the announcement states that it will do so under strict safety protocols. The pantry is operated by the Northampton Survival Center.

The transfer station will also remain open.

Chesterfield declared a local state of emergency on Sunday, and chose to close its municipal buildings to the public effective Monday morning until further notice.

“What we’re facing right now is a unique and unprecedented scenario,” said Larry Holmberg, the emergency management director for both Chesterfield and Goshen.

He also said that his towns are gearing up to support people who may be put into quarantine or isolation, and that he takes a broad view of the term support. Additionally, Holmberg said that the Council On Aging in Chesterfield is looking to partner with social agencies to possibly deliver meals to healthy elderly people who shouldn’t be exposing themselves to crowds.

Holyoke City Hall and City Hall Annex were closed to the public last week, as was the Holyoke Senior Center, the Wistariahurst museum, and the Holyoke Public Library.

Northampton closed all of its municipal buildings to the public, including the senior center, on Monday, and announced policy changes for its transfer stations. All permits for the transfer stations must now be purchased online, and blue bag sales will also not take place onsite. Only checks or cash will be accepted for fee-based item disposal, and can be deposited in lock boxes.

Southampton closed its government buildings to the general public on Monday, and in announcing the closures the town noted that tax payments can be made online.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.




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