Halifax Town Administrator Charlie Seelig held a meeting on Tuesday, June 2 with the Board of Selectmen, department heads, and other town employees to discuss reopening.
Per a vote at the previous selectmen meeting, the Halifax COVID leave policy will end starting with the pay period beginning Sunday, June 7. As of that date, town employees will only be paid for hours worked. An exception will be made for departments that don’t have enough hours to fulfill an employees’ usual workload. In those cases, employees can compensate for additional hours with either personal, sick, or vacation time. Seelig opened the floor for questions on the ending of the policy but none were asked.
Seelig said that he had been reviewing the processes other communities were putting into place in order to have their employees return to work safely. Chief among them is the policy that those who are not well remain home. Each day employees would need to self-certify that they don’t currently have any symptoms of COVID-19. They would also have to certify that they have not been in close contact with someone who has COVID nor have they been told by a medical professional that they have a probable case of COVID even in the absence of a test. Library Director Jean Gallant inquired if the self-certification would run on the honor system or if actual documentation would be expected to be submitted to the Board of Selectmen. Seelig said that documentation would likely not need to be provided to the selectmen. Formal decisions regarding the policies for reopening will need to be made by the Board during their meeting on June 9.
Currently the state has guidance in place that requests that Massachusetts residents that travel out of state for non-work-related reasons, self-quarantine for 14 days upon return to the state. Seelig said that the Board will need to decide whether to include this stipulation as part of the self-certification. As pointed out during the meeting, while it is considered best practice and recommended, there is no legal requirement to self-quarantine following out-of-state travel. Fire Chief Jason Viveiros said that the policy didn’t seem to make much sense since Massachusetts has higher rates of COVID-19 than most other states. Seelig agreed, pointing out that New York is likely the only border state with a higher rate than Massachusetts.
Seelig also addressed the need for supplies as well as physical changes to the town buildings. He said that decisions will have to be made regarding what procedures should be implemented for employees that share rooms as well as for those that cannot always maintain six feet of distance between themselves and other employees. Seelig pointed out that based on research, even if maintaining proper social distancing, sharing the same enclosed space for extended time periods can increase the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission. Things to consider include whether masks will be required, if barriers will need to be inserted between desks, and if furniture or rooms will need to be rearranged. If masks are required, the Board of Selectmen will have to decide how to handle situations where an employee has a medical condition that prevents that from wearing one.
Seelig said that hygiene practices will have to be reviewed and reinforced as well. Hand sanitizer will likely need to be supplied to areas where common surfaces such as copier machines are found. Signage will likely need to be provided to remind people of best practices including sneezing into your elbow and not having others clean up after you. It had been previously suggested that hand dryers be installed rather than paper towel dispensers but there is some concern over having air circulated in such a way in a small, enclosed room. Seelig said the town may need to look at installing touchless paper towel dispensers instead. A cleaning log will also need to be kept indicating when rooms were cleaned.
Other ideas that were floated during Tuesday’s meeting included the need for a method for contact tracing. Seelig also suggested the possibility of having employees work split shifts in order to reduce shared spaces. Other considerations such as what equipment may be needed for different departments were also discussed.
Seelig said that the Board will also need to decide to what extent remote working will continue. The state currently recommends that those that can efficiently work from home continue to do just that. Also to be decided will be what kind of documentation will be required by departments in order to work remotely. Seelig said that employees will likely have to punch-in, punch-out, and provide a synopsis of time spent. Gallant said that she felt strongly that people should be allowed to continue to work from home wherever feasible.
Finally, Seelig addressed the steps that would be needed to open town buildings to the public. He said that one option would be to reopen by appointment only initially to avoid large clusters coming into buildings such as town hall at once. Another option would be to open but for limited hours. This option could either be done from the get-go or following a period of appointment only availability. Seelig said that limited hours worked well for the soft opening of the recycling center.
He emphasized that were the town to go this route with other town buildings, the hours would have to advertised extensively to avoid confusion or anger on behalf of residents. He told the department heads that he would like their input before the June 9 meeting as to whether they would prefer a slower start or going full throttle from the beginning.
Seelig also said that a plan would need to be in place before reopening to address any residents or other building guests that refuse to comply with policies including wearing a face covering and social distancing.
Seelig told department heads that the decision to reopen the buildings could end up being a temporary one should there be another large spread or outbreak of the virus. He said that the town may want to consider spending money to bolster services should buildings close again.
Seelig asked those present to send any questions or suggestions to him in the next few days as he hopes to have the Board finalize as much of the reopening policy as possible at their June 9 meeting.