O.B. seeks to postpone town meeting, election

Selectmen approve operations plan; police chief looks at hotels as backup hospital.

from left William White, Meegan Lancaster, and Jim Butterick of the Oak Bluffs Board of Health met with selectmen Tuesday amid concerns of COVID-19. Oak Bluffs is seeking to postpone it's annual town meeting and election. — Brian Dowd

Updated March 17

Oak Bluffs is seeking to postpone its annual town meeting and election, scheduled for April 14 and and April 16 respectively, pending clarification from the state.

At a joint meeting with the board of health that was live streamed online from a room that had been scrubbed down with disinfectants Monday, selectmen approved the Oak Bluffs COVID-19 virus operations plan that outlines the town’s operations while promoting social distancing to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19.

“We need to be prepared to adopt these operational guidelines today, but they may change if this trajectory on this upward track as it has, we may have to address this even more,” town administrator Robert Whritneour said.

Chief among those plans is postponing the annual town meeting and election. Selectman Brian Packish told The Times that a date for town meeting is to be determined, but for now wanted the public to know town meeting will not occur on April 14 nor the election on April 16. The board will seek clarification on if there will be a statewide town meeting postponement.

From March 17 through April 17 town offices will remain open by appointment only basis. These include: Town Hall, the harbormaster office, shellfish department, highway department, and wastewater department. The town is encouraging transactions to be handled online, by email, or by telephone. Inspectional services can be accessed by telephone or email.

While the town’s police and fire departments will remain open, residents are being asked to use discretion and to only come to the buildings during emergencies.

The town is closing the council on aging, but daily Meals on Wheels deliveries will be maintained through Elder Services. The Oak Bluffs Public Library, the skatepark, and the basketball courts will be closed to the public.

All board meetings will be held via teleconference or video to provide remote participation. All advisory committee meetings have been postponed.

Police Chief Erik Blake, who is also the town’s emergency management director, told selectmen that he is working on a plan in the event the hospital runs out of beds for patients.

Shelters the town would normally use for a snowstorm or a hurricane are not appropriate for the COVID-19 situation, according to Blake. Instead, Blake is working with hotels such as the Surfside and the Winnetu to be a “back-up hospital” of sorts. The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency would help with reimbursement costs for shelters, according to Blake.

“That’s the perfect situation,” Blake said. “Someone has their own room. Someone has their own bathroom.”

The police department is also asking people to not come into the station unless it’s an emergency and to call the station for assistance. Police will not be doing firearms licensing at the station.

Blake also stressed the importance of going to federal, state, and local websites for information on COVID-19.

“Stay off the social media sites because it’s just so much disinformation,” he said.

Selectman Gail Barmakian stressed the importance of social distancing and working from home  

“I think everybody should think about sending home non-essential personnel,” Barmakian said. “It’s not only protecting from the public it’s protecting from each other.”

Whritenour said the town is accommodating its workforce issues on a person-by- person basis such as people with increased risk for virus related problems. He added that the selectmen may need to “investigate” paid or sick leave accommodations for town employees with children who are not in school due to closures.

“I wish all the political arms of all the towns were as well connected as the boards of health, the EMS, the police departments, the fire departments. You all work together in any crisis because you have to and it always amazes me,” selectman Greg Coogan said.

Health agent Meegan Lancaster briefed selectmen on the stats of confirmed cases in Massachusetts. As of Tuesday there are 197 confirmed cases, according to the Department of Public Health (DPH) website.

Lancaster also informed selectmen the board of health has twice weekly phone calls with the boards of health, emergency managers, and the hospital. Lancaster also speaks with the Centers for Disease Control and the DPH once a week and receives daily email updates from them. 

Selectman Brian Packish said while plans are in place they are subject to change day-to-day.

“It’s going to change again tomorrow,” Packish said. “We need to be prepared, we need to continue social distancing, taking appropriate action, and that’s where we are. Right now, everybody is working really, really hard and I for one am super proud of our community.”


Updated to include more details from the meeting. — Ed.