Updated @12 noon
COVID-19, the disease caused by novel coronavirus, is about to alter a New England tradition — the town meeting.
On Friday morning, the Tisbury board of selectmen and board of health met in joint session to talk about the spread of the virus, the state’s emergency declaration, and the need for social distancing. Ultimately, they decided to restrict public meetings in public spaces through May 1, which will lead to a declaration by town moderator Deborah Medders to postpone town meeting. That meeting was scheduled for Tuesday, March 31.
The town election hangs in the balance as well. Though there’s some disagreement over whether Friday’s vote is enough, a town bylaw requires the town election to come two weeks after annual town meeting.
Later in the day, West Tisbury decided to postpone its annual town meeting until May 12, according to Town Administrator Jennifer Rand. Rand stressed the postponement is unofficial until moderator Dan Waters formally announces it. West Tisbury’s town meeting was scheduled for April 14.
Town meeting is the legislative branch of town government. It’s an open meeting, which allows any registered voter to weigh in on key issues including the town budget. The meeting and voters set the budget for the next fiscal year, which begins on July 1. Legislation is in the works that could allow the towns to operate, similar to cities, and use emergency budgeting.
It comes as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is urging so-called “social distancing” to prevent the spread. In Massachusetts, the number of presumptive cases topped 100 on Thursday. The number of people in quarantine across the state is 1,083, though 638 individuals have been released after 14 days without symptoms. There are no specific numbers for the Island, though Michael Loberg, a healthcare professional and a member of the town’s board of health, said one person has been tested on Island and it came back negative. Loberg, who is owner of Vineyard Medical Care, then gave a sobering account of what might happen if the town — and Island — didn’t take precautions.
“This is considered an aggressive pathogen. We’re in the exponential phase of growth. The number of infected patients is doubling every four to six days,” he said. “… Time, postponing things would be good. Let me say that we don’t want to make a mistake here if we can avoid it. The concept of social distance is partly to protect the patient. But what it’s really intended to do is to flatten what they call the curve. There’s a curve that is the number of infected over any period of time; if that curve goes up — we do nothing and that curve shoots up — all of a sudden that exponential growth hits the Island, hits our healthcare providers, and we will immediately lose the ability to defend ourselves medically. We just don’t have enough resources. If you can flatten that curve, a couple of things happen — your healthcare providers can better stay on top of it… but even more than that, because the facilities are working the way we want them to, the overall death rate will stay much lower. It will stay in that 1 percent range you hear about. We could get into the 3 percent range, the less sophisticated country range, if we really overwhelm our healthcare givers and our facilities.”
Loberg advocated for town meeting to be postponed.
When some board members in the audience pushed back saying they had upcoming meetings, town administrator Jay Grande said a decision would have to be made on how essential the meeting was. The state has waived provisions of the Open Meeting Law, but requires that if a meeting is held, that the public have access through audio or video. He is in the process of exploring how the town can do that.
“We need to nip this now,” selectman Jeff Kristal said. “Err on the side of caution before it’s too late.”
Selectmen took other key votes allowing their members to call in to a meeting and vote. Board members always had the ability to participate remotely, but only through May 1.
For now, town hall remains open, Grande said, though town officials are asking the public to use online payment methods for taxes and fees as much as possible. Cleaning and disinfecting has been beefed up and hand sanitizer is available, he said.
On the recommendation of Fire Chief John Schilling, no meetings are to be held at the Emergency Services Facility to protect the town’s first responders.
Meanwhile, town health agent Maura Valley plans to meet with the council on aging and the Vineyard Haven library to evaluate some of their programs. The council on aging provides a luncheon daily for about 20 seniors.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the elderly, and particularly those with underlying medical conditions, are most at risk to COVID-19.
Updated to include more details from the meeting. -ed