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Brattleboro defers town meeting

Almost all board meetings cancelled as Selectboard pivots to respond to COVID-19

BRATTLEBORO—As it set its sights on slowing the spread of the coronavirus, the Selectboard held its March 17 meeting as scheduled — and then its members decided what community events would not follow suit.

• The board decided to cancel Annual Representative Town Meeting scheduled for March 21.

This decision was based on the prevailing theme of social distancing and avoidance of multiple people gathered in public places. But it was also the result of Governor Phil Scott’s executive order of limiting meetings to 50 people.

The town aims to hold the annual meeting on Saturday, May 9.

• The board also voted to permit recipients of the town’s small business assistance loans to defer repayment until further notice.

• In the spirit of maintaining community hygiene and in acknowledgment that several community members might be out of work, the board also suspended shutting off municipal water service due to unpaid fees.

This moratorium on service shutdown is in effect until further notice.

• The Selectboard meeting on April 7 will be the only public meeting that is still scheduled. The town has cancelled all other committee and commission meetings until further notice.

Emergency management update

“Things are changing very very rapidly,” Fire Chief Michael Bucossi, the town’s emergency management director, told the board.

Still, he felt that in general, the town’s emergency planning and response strategies are in good shape.

As of March 17, he said, “There are no known cases of COVID-19 in Brattleboro.”

Bucossi said the community should know that when they call 911, dispatch operators will also ask questions to screen for COVID-19. In non-life-threatening situations, emergency responders will also perform “doorway screenings” to assess for the virus.

This week Bucossi and Rhianna Kendrick of Groundworks Collaborative held the first Homeless Response Team meeting to help people experiencing homelessness in the community and to make plans to provide anyone with COVID-19 with medical care when possible.

Kendrick told the board that Groundworks has taken steps to protect its clients. The organization has closed its Drop-In Center and opened the Seasonal Overflow Shelter full-time.

Vulnerable clients who are older than 60 and/or have an underlying medical condition have been moved to hotels so they can shelter in place as needed. As often as possible, the organization has tried to house people in its shelter in individual rooms, she said.

The Foodworks food shelf has shifted to providing food to be picked up or delivered.

Bucossi said at this point there are some “speed bumps” in that planning process, but he anticipated that the Homeless Response Team will have a detailed plan within a few days.

The chief also said that Brattleboro Memorial Hospital and Grace Cottage Hospital have agreed on a community treatment plan if the cases of COVID-19 climb.

BMH will treat COIVD-19 patients because it has the negative pressure rooms necessary to contain the virus. Meanwhile, other medical needs and outpatient needs will be provided at Grace Cottage.

Where things stand

Town Manager Peter Elwell provided an update on town operations as they related to the virus.

He urged people to find up-to-date information on the virus on the town’s website, Brattleboro.org.

There, people can find links to information on COVID-19 from the state, the CDC, and the World Health Organization. The page also offers information for households and businesses.

Elwell reminded community members that the town is issuing daily updates on the site as well.

• As of Wednesday, March 18, town offices will be closed to the public. Town operations will continue, but the community will need to communicate with staff through phone or email.

• Elwell noted that Brooks Memorial Library, though largely closed to visitors, is offering a service where community members can put in an order for materials and pick them up at the library.

• The Parks and Recreation Department is still collecting fees for spring and summer classes.

• The Public Works Department has put special measures in place to ensure that the staff that operate and maintain the wastewater and water treatment facilities stay healthy so the facilities will keep operating.

• The town has also suspended parking fees at on-street meters and pay-and-display parking areas. Also individual Pay-As-You-Throw bag sales at town offices are suspended. The packages of bags are still available in the grocery stores.

Finally, Elwell noted that the town is exploring electronic and internet-based meeting software. Should the community find itself in a prolonged lockdown, he said, the town might need to consider holding meetings where people will connect remotely.

In the meantime, however, to comply with Vermont’s open meeting law, which requires meetings happen in a physical location, the town will continue to hold Selectboard meetings “the old-fashioned way” in the Municipal Center, he said.

Vice-Chair Tim Wessel chaired the three-member meeting. The meeting was well attended.

He opened the meeting with the comment, “It’s turbulent times, I have to tell you.”

In chair’s comments, he paraphrased a comment he’d heard that this virus is “like a large, rolling snowstorm that we can’t see.”

Wessel also asked people to seek out good information and not panic.

It’s impossible to eliminate risk, he said. Rather, what the town is trying to do is reduce risk, adding that townspeople should keep the community’s emergency responders and health-care workers in their thoughts.

Wessel asked townspeople to be there for those in the community who need help.

“Now is a great time to live the edict, ‘We are Vermont strong,’” he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #553 (Wednesday, March 18, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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