Hudson Town Hall

City and town halls had been all-but-dormant for more than two months when they received the OK to reopen effective May 25 during the first phase of the state’s reopening plan.

The scene at these centers of local government activity, however, is going to look quite different than it did before the COVID-19 state of emergency.

For starters, municipal buildings are subject to the 25% occupancy limitation imposed on office spaces in the state’s new Sector-Specific Workplace Safety Standards.

They’ll also need to keep people at least 6 feet apart whenever possible and provide masks when it’s not, which means closing or reconfiguring common areas such as break rooms and requiring masks for visitors.

And they’ll need to post signs, erect partitions and stock up on cleaning products such as sanitizers and disinfecting wipes. Staggered work, break and lunch schedules might be necessary to ensure distancing. Sharing office materials and equipment is strongly discouraged. And workers will have to be trained on the new protocols.

All of this has local leaders taking a moment to digest the guidance and prepare careful plans, rather than rushing to reopen. Most appear to be taking a phased-in approach, and are postponing interactions with the public. After honing their abilities to deliver services and hold meetings remotely over the past 10 weeks, many are in no rush to return to a pre-COVID workplace, particularly as they face budget uncertainty in fiscal 2021, which begins on July 1.

“I do have an interest in reviving services such as the library and Senior Center,” said Hudson Town Manager Thomas Moses. But he said there’s more risk than upside in moving quickly to reopen Town Hall, adding that the public is not clamoring at the doors.

“My local experience tells me that all our essential services are being fulfilled at a distance,” he wrote in the MMA’s online COVID forum. “I know that we would all like to get back to normal, but I don’t see that we have to.

“The processes that we normally conduct in person … either have a viable alternative delivery method or the underlying activities are on hold.”

Auburn Town Manager Julie Jacobson, president of the Massachusetts Municipal Management Association, said this view reflects the general sentiment of town managers, who are committed to meeting all health and safety standards.

“Most of the managers I have spoken with are planning a gradual return to the office for those employees who have been working remotely, although many plan to continue to have employees work remotely as much as possible,” she said.

“Here in Auburn,” she said, “we are proud to have maintained continuity of our municipal operations, even when many of those operations have been – and will likely continue to be – provided remotely. … Our in-office staffing levels will resume gradually, possibly with split shifts if needed.”

To reduce the need for in-person contact, the town is getting ready to open a drive-through service kiosk in the Town Hall parking lot and a drive-up window for the treasurer/collector’s office.

While Halifax looks forward to reopening municipal buildings and re-establishing personal connections with residents, “the first priority must be the safety and health of residents and employees,” said Town Administrator Charlie Seelig.

“Reopening simply to meet a self-imposed date and without all the necessary measures in place, ranging from glass and plexiglass shields to hand sanitizer, is a reopening that leaves everyone more vulnerable to the transmission of the virus,” he said. “Halifax is working with employees on the policies and procedures needed to have staff return in larger numbers, then to have a possible ‘soft opening’ in which places such as Town Hall are open on a limited basis, such as by appointment, and then to open the building for its normal hours but with social distancing and hygiene protocols in place.”

Seelig said the timeframe for this progression is not yet clear, and towns need to remain on guard for a potential second wave of COVID and a need to revert to earlier practices.

City offices in Beverly, Lowell, New Bedford, Northampton and Worcester are among those that remain closed until further notice. The same is true of Easthampton and Lawrence, whose mayors – Nicole LaChapelle and Dan Rivera, respectively – served on the state’s Reopening Advisory Board.

The New Bedford website states that city offices “continue to serve residents remotely, as they have since mid-March.” Northampton’s website states: “Our return to our offices will be deliberately planned, carefully communicated, will incorporate input from Department Heads, and will allow adequate time for implementation.”

In conference calls with local officials, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito has said that the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, the Registry of Motor Vehicles and the Human Resources Division are working on guidance for state agencies on reopening and interacting with the public. She suggested this guidance may also be helpful to municipalities, once it is ready.

Plans, posters, supplies and training
The state’s reopening plan is designed to be self-compliant. Like all employers, cities and towns are expected to:
• Use a template to develop a COVID control plan.
• Acquire the required supplies (such as face coverings and sanitizers).
• Conduct employee training.
• Display compliance attestation posters and checklists to assure both employees and visitors that the workplace is in compliance.

The two-page control plan template must be filled out to indicate that the workplace is complying with the mandatory safety standards for operation in the COVID-19 reopening period. The template asks for business contact information, a human resources contact, and the number of employees on site. It then includes a list of check boxes in the areas of Social Distancing, Hygiene Protocols, Staffing and Operations (covering items such as training and what to do when an employee is ill), and Cleaning and Disinfecting. Control plans do not need to be submitted for approval, but must be kept on premise and made available in the case of an inspection or outbreak.

The single-page attestation poster is a four-item list, with assurances about face coverings and social distancing, hand washing capabilities and sanitization, staff training, and cleaning and disinfecting protocols. The attestation poster should be displayed in an area on the premises that is visible to employees and visitors.

The two-page COVID checklist for office spaces goes into additional detail on the four main areas covered in the attestation poster.

The employee training would explain the social distancing and hygiene protocols that have been put in place to comply with the state’s mandatory health and safety requirements, according to the DLS.

Department of Labor Standards Director Michael Flanagan assures local leaders that the compliance standards “may sound more daunting than they really are.”

“It’s a half dozen checkboxes, you make sure that you’re meeting all those requirements, you check the boxes, you sign it, you post it, and that’s what self-certification is,” he said. “It’s not a particularly arduous process.”

Regarding training, he said, “this doesn’t need to be a full-blown day of training. This can be 15 maybe 30 minutes of training that is no more elaborate than what your specific protocols are in order to meet the reopening requirements and the self-certification requirements.”

Occupancy limit
The DLS has clarified that the current 25% occupancy limit is per office space and not by building.

According to the DLS, municipalities “should limit occupancy of municipal office spaces to 25 percent of (a) the maximum occupancy level specified in any certificate of occupancy or similar permit or as provided for under the state building code; or (b) the business organization’s typical occupancy as of March 1, 2020.”

If a municipality designates a municipal office as a “COVID-19 Essential Service,” which it has discretion to do, then that office has until July 1 to comply with the 25% occupancy limitations.

“Further, a municipality may determine that a municipal office can exceed the maximum occupancy level if the municipality determines that it is in the interest of public health or safety considerations, or where strict compliance may interfere with the continued delivery of a critical service, as determined by the municipality.”

While essential service offices have until July 1 to comply, they’re advised to do so as soon as they’re able.

Further guidance
Massachusetts employers are expected to continue and encourage social and hygiene practices that have become new habits over the past two months, such as hand washing and distancing, and to continue remote-work practices where feasible.

The following are some of the requirements for employers:
• Provide regular sanitization of high-touch areas, such as workstations, equipment, doorknobs and restrooms
• Ensure that employees who are displaying COVID-19-like symptoms do not report to work
• Ensure that cleaning and disinfecting is performed when an active employee is diagnosed with COVID-19
• Establish a plan for employees getting ill from COVID-19 at work, and a return-to-work plan

Physical partitions must separate workstations that cannot be spaced out, and workers are required to wear face coverings in cases where they cannot maintain a distance of 6 feet, such as in elevators, control rooms and vehicles.

Directional hallways for foot traffic, and visible signage, are recommended to minimize contact. Signs should also be posted throughout the work site to remind workers of the hygiene and safety protocols.

Meeting sizes should be limited to ensure distancing, and remote participation should be encouraged.
Cafeterias may operate only with prepackaged food.

The DLS has created a web area for COVID-19 workplace safety rules.

Questions can be directed to the DLS hotline at 508-616-0461, ext. 9488, or safepublicworkplacemailbox@mass.gov.

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