Wilmington taking precautions
WILMINGTON- Local readiness and response to the coronavirus pandemic topped discussions at Tuesday evening’s selectboard meeting.
Although the town has closed public access to all town buildings, including town hall, the meeting was held under an exemption that allows for necessary appointments and for public meetings “where access is limited to 50 people or 50% of the occupancy” of the room. Town Manager Scott Tucker said the town has determined that the maximum occupancy for the town hall meeting room under the rule is 35. Including board members and town officials, only 12 people were in the room Tuesday evening.
Wilmington Fire Chief Scott Moore discussed the precautions the town has taken, including the town’s emergency responders, as well as precautions everyone should take. “Keep your distance from people, use common sense, wash your hands, cough into your elbow, if you don’t have to go out, don’t go out. Don’t go to any parties. If you don’t feel good, don’t go to work. Don’t be out in public. That’s about all we can do.”
Moore also advised that local residents be attentive to older residents, and those with weak immune systems. “Today we had an elderly widow with no way to get groceries call and ask for help,” he said. “People are going to need this kind of help. Luckily, I had a volunteer who said she’d go up and take care of this.”
Meg Staloff, of Wilmington Works, said she was working on a form to collect information on volunteers, seeking people who could do phone check-ins, deliver groceries or help with other needs. She said she was meeting with Angel Balch, of the Deerfield Rotary Club and SASH (Support And Services at Home), to coordinate the local volunteer response. Staloff also said the Rotary Club and local Lions Club were collaborating to check on people who are on the Lions Club food basket distribution list. “It’s coming together,” Staloff said.
Moore said the members of his department wanted to know if there was a plan in place to compensate them if they are called on to play an expanded role in the crisis. “Say (Deerfield Valley) Rescue is busy, or their people start dropping out because of this and we end up driving ambulances, they want to know they’re covered,” Moore said. “They’re good now. But if this goes full blown, this could be the tip of the iceberg. All of our agencies are going to have to work together. We’re meeting with Rescue, Whitingham Fire Department and first responders, and we’re going to talk about how we’re going to handle this.”
Town Manager Scott Tucker said the town is waiting to see how the federal government responds, and what they’ll provide. “Those are the same questions the Legislature will have to grapple with in terms of covering what the federal government isn’t covering,” Tucker said. “If we have to use our leave time for quarantine, what happens when that runs out? Do we have to use all of our time? Some people have an abundance of (paid time off) and we could create a pool to help out others. How flexible should we be about working at home. Some people have kids that are now out of school, and all the programs are shut down. How flexible can we be in terms of people getting a full paycheck. Those are some of the things we’re discussing.”
Moore said state agencies have been sending multiple updates on the coronavirus pandemic every day, and the response has developed rapidly.
Board member Tom Fitzgerald observed that many second-home owners are currently staying in the area, perhaps for the duration of the emergency.
“They’re taxpayers, and they have every right to be here,” said economic consultant Gretchen Havreluk. “They are part of our community.”
“Let’s not forget what they did after Irene,” said board member John Gannon. “I would be embarrassed if anyone here was hostile to our second home-owners.”
Havreluk noted that Gov. Phil Scott ordered all restaurants and bars to close, except for take-out, until at least April 6. “It could be longer than that,” she advised. “We’re a resort community and it’s going to affect us. There are still restaurants in the Deerfield Valley that are open for take-out only. We need to prepare for some long-term effects.”
Havreluk said there were federal, state, regional, and local resources that were being organized to bring some relief to businesses affected by pandemic restrictions. Havreluk recommended the town suspend payments to the town’s revolving loan fund for those having difficulty making the payments. She also advised adjusting the criteria for the revolving loan fund to make more businesses eligible to use the fund during the pandemic. In particular, she recommended changing a criterion requiring “job creation” to be replaced with a requirement that the funds be used for job retention. She also recommended a decrease in the interest rate charged on the loans. “Right now it’s half of the prime rate plus two, which works out to be about 5.25% or something like that. I’d like to see us drop it to 2%.”
Fitzgerald said the board would vote on the changes at their next meeting, and board member Sarah Fisher, participating by phone, suggested Havreluk let businesses know about the changes and allow them to fill out applications in anticipation of the board’s approval of her recommendations.
“You’ve mentioned employers, but what about employees?” asked Gannon.
“If they’ve been laid off, they can access the department of labor online,” Havreluk said. She said that, if the Vermont Legislature approves a bill currently in the Senate, employers will not experience an increase in unemployment taxes if their employees collect unemployment due to layoffs connected to the coronavirus pandemic. “That was one of the big issues during Irene,” she said. “Employers were penalized by having to pay a higher unemployment tax rate for three years.”
Havreluk warned that the area could face a deeper economic crisis than after Tropical Storm Irene. “We keep referring to Tropical Storm Irene, but this is probably going to be worse,” she said. “This is national, worldwide. It’s going to affect us much more prominently. And we won’t have our second-home owners to help us the way they did after Tropical Storm Irene. They’re being affected, too. But it could have the effect that people will come here to live afterward. We talk about Vermont as a place for climate change migrants, it could be for coronavirus migrants, too. It’s a lot safer place to be.”
Gannon suggested the board review their powers as the board of health, in the event they need to act during the pandemic. “There are pretty large powers to issue orders,” he said. “The board can order quarantines, limit assemblies, order people to go to the hospital if they’re ill and need treatment.”
“Let’s ban illness,” suggested Fitzgerald.
“What if you have someone having an assembly of people, or someone who is sick walking around the community?” Gannon continued. “Obviously you want people to do the right thing voluntarily, but we haven’t dusted off those powers for a long time.”
“Right now people are in compliance,” agreed Fitzgerald. “As time goes on, people are going to get tired of compliance. Things are going to get testy here.”
In other matters the board denied a 1% local option tax funding request from the Friends of Memorial Hall for their upcoming show season. “We’re not going to give that to you now,” Fitzgerald said. “And the reason is, we’re just not sure what we have for reserves right now. We’re in a defensive mode right now. This town has always bounced back, but in the meantime we can’t expend the 1% on anything.”
“We understand completely,” said Hunter Charnow, of the Friends of Memorial Hall.
Fitzgerald said the Friends of Memorial Hall could come back at a later date to ask for the funding.