On March 10, 2020, Governor Charles D. Baker declared a state of emergency in the Commonwealth due to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). On May 17, 2021, Governor Baker announced that the state of emergency would end on June 15. Pursuant to my authority contained in M.G.L. Ch. 39, §§ 15 and 17 to regulate the proceeding and preserve order at town meeting, I adopt this Public Health Protocol for the Annual Town Meeting to be held on June 21, 2021 at 6:30 p.m. Check-in will open at 5:30 p.m., and the rain date is June 23.
Although the Commonwealth has relaxed most restrictions on the conduct of town meetings, individual towns retain the flexibility to adopt their own standards. My objective is to implement all reasonable and prudent measures to protect the health of participants, while simultaneously preserving the deliberative nature of town meeting. I have developed these measures in close consultation with the Manchester Board of Health. At its meeting on June 3, the Board voted to endorse this protocol.
LOCATION AND SEATING
Scientists and public health officials are in accord that outdoor locations are safer than indoor. For this reason, the Board of Selectmen has decided to hold the meeting on Hyland Field at the Manchester Essex Middle High School. This will allow individual chairs and pairs of chairs for members of the same household to be spaced 10 feet apart with 10-foot aisles for movement within the meeting. This includes a safety margin beyond the 6-foot separation previously recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH).
I strongly encourage all participants to wear a mask or other face covering while checking in, when moving about the meeting and while leaving. Participants may remove their face masks when seated and when recognized to address the meeting. Although the CDC has relaxed its rule on mask wearing for those who are fully vaccinated, its May 6 update continues to recommend wearing masks while attending large gatherings, even outdoors, as well as for those who have not been vaccinated. Not everyone who has COVID-19 is symptomatic. Wearing a face covering reduces the risk of transmitting the virus to others: each of us has a responsibility to protect our neighbors.
DPH continues to recommend that people who have not been vaccinated wear masks at town meetings. Some Manchester residents have not yet been vaccinated, and we cannot effectively impose different requirements for different participants. In addition, virus variants are on the rise, and many risks with these are unknown at this point which argues for caution. I am continuing to encourage face coverings in order to respect those who remain vulnerable or who are anxious about transmission, and to avoid chilling voter attendance at town meeting.
Participants are encouraged to arrive early since the check-in process will be slower than usual; early arrivals will help to reduce bottlenecks and crowding. Check-in will open at 5:30 p.m. There will be two check-in stations, one near the refreshment stand and the other near the entrance to the school at the traffic circle. When voters arrive, volunteers will direct them to the two entrances, dividing the number as equally as possible between stations to minimize wait times.
There will be signs at each station listing the symptoms of COVID-19 and strongly urging anyone experiencing any of those symptoms not to attend.
While waiting in line, voters should wear masks and maintain separation of at least six feet from the check-in volunteers and from other voters, except for members of their own households. Markings will be placed on the ground at each station showing six-foot separation. There will be a police officer at each station to help maintain appropriate distancing. There will be extra masks available for anyone who lacks one.
To the extent practicable, volunteers at check-in stations should be recruited from those who have been vaccinated or are at lower risk of infection. They should be wearing gloves and face coverings. Hand sanitizer should be available at each station.
When issuing voting handsets and handouts, volunteers should place them on the table and voters should pick them up, while maintaining six-foot separation between each other. Volunteers should not contact voters by placing the handsets or handouts in their hands. In the event of inadvertent contact, both the volunteer and the voter should use hand sanitizer.
The Town is delivering packets containing the Finance Committee Report and other materials required for the meeting to all households well in advance of the meeting. The purpose of delivery is to minimize the number of pieces physically distributed at the meeting itself. This will help protect both voters and volunteers. There will be additional packets available at the meeting, as required by the Town’s General By-law, but I urge residents to bring the packets they receive at their homes.
SPEAKING AND MICROPHONES
There will be a stationary microphone at the west end of each aisle. Each microphone will be protected by a wind cover. A voter who wishes to speak should go to the microphone at the front of the aisle nearest her/his seat and, if someone is already there, wait at least six feet away from that person. When that person leaves, wait for a volunteer to disinfect the wind cover and adjust the height of the microphone. When the volunteer steps away, then go to the microphone. Voters should not touch the microphones. Wait to be recognized, then give the meeting your name and address. Speakers must limit their remarks to two minutes or less.
We will vote electronically as we have at recent town meetings. Although the electronic system failed at last year’s meeting, we have investigated the failure, determined the cause and corrected it. We have tested the voting system and found that it works throughout the football field. My intention is to take all votes electronically. If the electronic system should fail, votes will be taken by show of colored cards, with the outcome declared by the moderator or, if there is any doubt at all, counted by the tellers.
The bathrooms are located near the refreshment stand and will be open and provided with hand sanitizer. Voters should remain masked and use hand sanitizer before returning to the meeting.
LEAVING THE MEETING
After the meeting dissolves, I will ask voters to remain in their seats and leave only when their row is called. This will help to minimize crowding at the two limited exits and maintain safe distancing.