Special Town Meeting: Draft Warrant, Mask Mandate, and Safety Precautions

by beth on October 1, 2021

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This week, the Board of Health discussed plans for making the November 1st Special Town Meeting a safe environment for participants. The main question they had was, could they legally require voters wear masks?

While I’m covering that, I’ll also provide a peek of what attending voters will be expect to decide.

Masks and Safety Precautions

Town Counsel Jay Talerman felt fairly, but not completely, confident that was allowable. The attorney noted that the right to vote at Town Meeting isn’t treated as sacrosanct as voting rights in elections. But, he couldn’t say how that would shake out if legally challenged.

Board members expressed concern that a lot of loyal TM voters are in a vulnerable population. Many are vaccinated against Covid, but member Nancy Sacco noted that in the ICU where she works she’s been seeing a lot of breakthrough cases. (She noted the ICU was more full this summer than the prior one.)

The Board voted to mandate a mask requirement for all meeting attendees.  However, they also supported Talerman’s suggested backup for voters who refuse to mask. They will be sent to a separate room.

Town Clerk Jim Hegarty confirmed that he can setup a third room with audio/visual access to presentations. Voters in the room can be seen by the moderator and have the ability to make motions or ask questions (with assistance from an “equity moderator” in the room.)

It’s a system that is already planned for times when the main room is over capacity. In fact, many voters who do wear masks may face a similar situation this fall.

Due to the Board’s 6 feet spacing requirement for attendees, Hegarty was already planning for an overflow room. The main hall will be in Trottier’s gymnasium and overflow seating in the auditorium. (A third, unidentified room will now also be used if needed for anti-mask voters.)

Hegarty asked how he should handle attendees who indicate they have been exposed to Covid. (He gave examples of situations he experienced during last year’s elections. He stressed that common sense and what’s legally enforceable aren’t always the same.)

The Board and public health staff’s preference is that anyone who has been exposed or is experiencing any symptoms remain home. For those who come anyway, Public Health Nurse Taylor West offered that she could conduct rapid antigen tests. (The results come back in less than 15 minutes.) 

Member Safdar Medina said that even if the test comes back negative, anyone with mild symptoms should still be required to wear a mask. All agreed with that, and that those with positive tests or severe symptoms would be sent home.

Talerman was confident those decisions were legally enforceable. He likened voters’ rights to the rights of children to attend a public school. (Students are sent home when ill.) West noted that even without Covid, anyone with a fever is always told to stay home.

Hegarty described to the Board ventilation improvements being made for the main hall. Air movers will be installed at the gym doors. He assured that airflow will be increased without pushing the air across anyone.

The Warrant

Last week, selectmen closed the Warrant, but didn’t officially sign off on it. That means that nothing completely new can be added to the list, but items can still be revised or removed. The final Warrant is scheduled to be signed by selectmen this Tuesday.

Once it is closed, Article sponsors will still have the ability to propose amendments (within limitations) or ask voters to indefinitely postpone them.

Below is the current list that selectmen will review on October 5th. 

1. Amend Personnel Bylaw 

Inclusion of an IT Specialist position that voters already approved the budget for at Annual Town Meeting

2. Amend Town Code — Select Board 

Simply changing the Board of Selectman’s name to Select Board

3. Amend FY2022 Budget

  • Reducing the MWRA Water funds by $150K
  • Increasing the Board of Health budget by $99,682 for public health personnel. (This was purposely not included at ATM in order to take advantage of federal funding to cover the “additional costs” related to Covid.)

4. Amend FY2022 Budget — Capital expenses

  • $30K to replenish the Town’s fund for Engineering/Capital Feasibility Studies (used for exploration/preliminary design in developing a comprehensive plan related to the building needs of all town depts. Any proposed expenses must first be approved by the Board of Selectmen.)
  • $85K for IT Server replacements

5. Traffic Study for HCV routes

$25K for a study to determine the best routes for heavy trucks to take through Town. (This is in order to then apply for the correct exclusions. You can read more here.)

6. Amend Town Code — Advisory membership

To amend the charge to lower the number of members to seven and add a Vice Chair. (The language doesn’t include a section that was controversial this spring, related to allowing more overlap with the Capital Planning Committee.)

7. Amend Town Code — Notice of Town Meetings

Clarifies the Warrant must be posted 14 days in advance of a Special Town Meeting

8. Amend Town Code — Location of Town Meeting

Allows officials to site Town Meetings in a “town contiguous to Southborough”. It is proposed by the Town Clerk in case it is needed for an emergency situation.

9. Amend Town Code — Availability of Annual Report

Correct conflicting language in the Town Code about making the Annual Report available to the public

10. Amend Town Code — Zoning — Downtown District

This is the initiative to reform zoning downtown. (You can read more about that here.)

You can view the draft Warrant in pages 100-117 of the agenda packet for Tuesday night’s BOS meeting.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 BAD IDEA October 1, 2021 at 3:43 PM

BOS – back to the drawing board!

The 2020 ATM was held outdoors. So was the 2021 ATM. The planned Fall 2020 ATM was cancelled because of the pandemic. Cancel this one too!

You have apparently failed to notice the pandemic is still with us. Now we are living with an even more transmissible variant of the virus which may also be associated with more severe symptoms. And that’s today. There are already other variants making their way through the population. The annual Flu Season is almost upon us as well. So, let’s see, we’ll have a super-spreader Fall TM and risk the health of all the attendees with exposure to COVID-19 and the annual Flu.

Brilliant!

Why would the BOS make such a poor decision as to proceed with a special version of a TM – indoors – during a pandemic?

What is so Earth shattering among the Articles that cannot wait until Spring?

Have you lost your remaining marbles?

A reasonable person would consider it prudent to cancel the Fall TM and postpone the Articles til the Spring 2022 ATM.

As people have been saying, there’s no “common” in common sense.

Reply

2 Matthew Brownell October 3, 2021 at 12:35 AM

About “breakthrough cases” of COVID for those who are vaccinated . .

a) the design of the COVID vaccine was never intended to prevent transmission of the virus, but to mitigate its most lethal effects . This is the way most vaccines operate.

b) The vast majority of vaccines have a percentage of breakthrough cases. This is reality. . . not an excuse to mandate masks in perpetuity.

c) A virus continually mutates. All the time. 7×24. Variants / new strains? Count on it.

I know I’m confused about where health experts and virologists are respective to the need for COVID booster shots. ( No for Moderna? Yes for Pfizer? )
I guess I’m anticipating the need for annual COVID booster shots, similar to annual flu vaccines? I think we all need better guidance on this-

I saw sign today posted on the door of a bakery and sandwich shop which made sense to me: “ If you haven’t been vaccinated, you MUST wear a mask. If you have been vaccinated, mask requirements are waived.”

Last , I’m hoping we can LOSE the term “ Equity Moderator”
(?? !!) . It just smacks of gratuitous nonsense. We’re all adults. And we presume the moderator will handle questions professionally despite the different rooms of masked & maskless attendees.

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3 Sara October 4, 2021 at 5:33 PM

I appreciate the mask mandates since not everyone is eligible for a vaccine. Until vaccines are available for all ages we should mask up vaccinated or not.

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4 southsider October 4, 2021 at 9:11 AM

The Booster issue is pretty straightforward.
Pfizer submitted data to the CDC requesting approval of a Booster dose based on weakening vaccine observations from a sample of people who had received their vaccine.
Moderna has yet to finish compiling their data; nor have they formally concluded that Moderna vaccine recipients need the third shot.

The idea of annual covid vaccinations is certainly plausible but i also know that the Spanish flu of a century ago simply died out after a couple of years … so maybe we’ll get lucky.

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