A resident visits the drive-through service kiosk outside Auburn Town Hall. (Photo courtesy Shannon Regan, Town of Auburn)

As businesses, restaurants and retailers have begun sputtering back to life in Phase 2 of the Reopening Massachusetts plan, many city and town halls are also starting to crack open doors largely shuttered since mid-March.

While the state issued guidance for the reopening of office spaces late last month, with some specific guidance for city and town halls, there is no requirement to open to the public, and communities are setting their own pace, responding to the wishes and concerns of their constituents and staff. The result is a mosaic of approaches ranging from full public access to a continuation of phone and online transactions, with some creative hybrid solutions as well.

On May 26, one day after the governor gave cities and towns the green light, the town of Sandwich was on the vanguard of the municipal office reopening wave. Following disinfectant “fogging” of the building, and with comprehensive safeguards that include rerouting foot traffic, plexiglass shields to protect employees and visitors, and copious signage about masks and social distancing, Sandwich Town Hall employees began working staggered shifts to handle residents’ business.

Other communities have since followed suit. East Bridgewater reopened its town hall on June 8, following the issuance of 29 pages of guidance by Town Administrator Brian Noble. Distributed to all town employees and posted online and in several buildings, the guidance covers the full gamut of concerns and questions about returning to in-person business in the midst of COVID-19, from mandatory mask-wearing by staff and visitors to contact tracing in the event that a staff member becomes infected.

“Our residents and taxpayers are the most important people in our business,” said Rebecca Johnson, administrative assistant to the East Bridgewater Board of Selectmen. “Therefore, we wanted to reopen for them as soon as possible, making sure in-person, over-the-counter transactions could be provided safely, while still using the option of a secured lock box located outside of town hall for those who aren’t ready to enter.

“It’s been nice seeing a steady flow of foot traffic in town hall again.”

Appointments required
From Egremont in the west and Leicester in the center to Norfolk and North Andover in eastern Massachusetts, a number of communities have reopened with a caveat: residents must make appointments before walking in, to ensure social distancing.

The town of Athol set up two appointment stations equipped with plexiglass shields and PPE in a handicapped accessible hallway – an approach designed to facilitate sanitation between appointments and protect staff from potential exposure to the virus within individual offices.

Athol Town Manager Shaun Suhoski said he established a seven-member advisory committee “to develop procedures that both comply with state guidance and meet local needs.”

“The town’s interest is in restoring direct services in a gradual and safe manner that protects our dedicated staff and the public we all serve,” he said. “Athol is not in a race to do it first. Rather, we are engaged in a collaborative effort to do it right.”

Leicester Town Hall reopened by appointment only on June 8 and will likely resume full operation on June 29, assuming the governor implements Phase 3 of his reopening plan, according to Town Administrator David Genereux.

“We are fortunate that our residents have been supportive and adaptive to the actions we have taken during the pandemic,” he said. “Most of our interaction has been through the town’s drop box or by telephone, and that has worked well. We have only had a couple of face-to-face appointments made since the reopening, leading me to believe that we will be continuing to see reduced traffic at the building for some time.”

Keeping it online
With people across the state now used to conducting business of all types using computers and smartphones, communities as diverse as Newburyport and Gloucester on the North Shore and Sudbury in MetroWest, Shrewsbury in Central Massachusetts and South Hadley in the Pioneer Valley have opted to stay their months-long course of online municipal business for now.

Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday noted the challenges of configuring space and erecting plexiglass barriers in a 19th century historic building with tight spaces.

“We are still in the process of making some major adjustments,” she said, noting that all staff returned to work in the building on June 15 and she is targeting July 6 for opening to the public.

“A reopening task force is listening to all of our employees in terms of their level of comfort,” she said.

In Gloucester, also aiming for a July 6 reopening, Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken echoed Holaday’s concerns.

“Reopening is a process,” she said. “We have been careful and cautious in our decisions and are confident a slow but better-prepared opening will benefit all.”

Gloucester’s building inspector has visited each municipal facility with a local vendor to determine where and how to install plexiglass, tempered glass and signage to safeguard employees and visitors. The city also developed several return-to-work policies, secured sufficient PPE for employees, and trained employees on best practices to avoid the spread of COVID-19, as required by state rules.

Outside the box
If there’s a silver lining to the COVID-19 cloud, it might be that it serves as a catalyst for ingenuity. Such is the case in Auburn, where the town opened a drive-through service kiosk on June 1, allowing residents to conduct certain town business in person without ever leaving their cars.

“It has been very successful and the feedback from the public has been positive,” Town Manager Julie Jacobson said.

Installed just outside Auburn Town Hall, the kiosk is open each weekday for municipal business ranging from obtaining marriage, birth and death certificates and dog licenses to paying parking tickets and municipal bills and filing Conservation Commission applications.

As Jacobson commented in an interview with WGBH, “I just thought that if you can go to a drive-up restaurant and you can go to a drive-up bank, why can’t you have a drive-up municipal service?”

Written by Lisa Capone