by Connie Sartini
The Board of Health joined the televised virtual meeting with the Select Board on Monday night to discuss the state directive on non-essential businesses and how to address some specific issues in Groton. Town Manager Mark Haddad advised that the Board of Health has a lot of authority for the safety of town residents and employees, and for working conditions that could impact public health.
There were two topics of concern; one was building and construction in Groton and the differing opinions regarding inspections, with inspectors going into private homes and the close quarters for the construction workers; and the second was the potential health risks from takeout food from restaurants.
Earlier in the day, Haddad said he met with Select Board Chairman Alison Manugian and Vice- Chairman Josh Degen along with department heads to discuss safety. The Building Commissioner and Building Inspector had expressed differing opinions about inspections.
Haddad said he was requesting that the Board of Health and the Select Board ban all construction in town.
Chairman Manugian said she wanted to “shut down as much as we can. A construction halt will protect our employees.”
Selectman Josh Degen said following their morning meeting, “There was a consensus that we should shut down all construction. We need to flatten the bell curve even though there will be economic hardship. Workers in restaurants are vulnerable. Gasoline pumps should have one person to pump gas (not having everyone’s’ hands on the pump) although it might be a hardship economically.”
Board of Health member Bob Fleisher suggested that some inspections might be of an emergency nature, adding a suggestion not to shut down, but instead having non-emergency inspections postponed.
Haddad stressed that he wanted to shut down all construction activities. He said that sometimes inspections can be done through photographs. “I don’t want the plumbing, gas and electrical inspectors going into private homes. The Board of Health has a lot of control,” he said and can take additional steps.
Board of Health Chairman Jason Weber asked, “How do we define emergency activities?” Haddad replied, “In the event that a pipe bursts and residents are in jeopardy in their home.” Haddad said he had spoken with the Emergency Management Director–Fire Chief Steele McCurdy--who said he was taking a “hard-line approach for his employees.”
Select Board member John Giger said he didn’t think anyone needed a permit to fix a pipe. The case of a building fire with minor damage is the only thing that would require a permit.
Select Board member Becky Pine said she agreed about inspectors not going into private homes.
Chairman Manugian stressed, “No construction protects the inspectors and the workers. In the absence of leadership in Boston, we are it.”
Degen said, “I am an advocate for shut down. I work outside and I am cutting my own throat, but I don’t want to open things up for the advancement of the virus. If you have to shut down, shut it down.” Manugian added, “A month-long shut down maximizes health benefits.”
Weber asked Haddad what other towns were doing. “If none of the surrounding towns don’t take different from our neighbors? Maybe we don’t want to decide this tonight. We can talk to the Nashoba Associated Boards of Health. This could go for more that two weeks. How long can we keep it up?”
BOH member Bob Fleisher said he wanted to honor the inspectors’ desires and not have them go into private homes. Weber added that the town “could simply not accept notices of completion.”
Haddad reported that the Fire Chief suggested not making a decision, just not issuing any new permits. For those that are out there, he suggested looking at them on a case-by-case basis.
Manugian said, “If there is no compromise for a shut down, we can wait for the state.”
Degen pointed out that Boris Johnson in the UK shut it down. “We don’t have time to talk. We are leaders and we should make the decision. We shouldn’t put leadership on Jason and Bob. Let’s just shut down.”
Weber reiterated his earlier comments, suggesting, “We should try to reach out to our neighbors.” He added, “The Building Inspector works for the town and I support the Town Manager for his concern for town employees.”
Haddad pointed out that a closing inspection should be done 90 days after the emergency is over.
Town Counsel Paul Derensis said there are two steps: The Board of Health can determine if there is a public health issue, and then it is up to the Select Board if they accept it, reject it, or amend it.
Manugian pushed for a Board of Health directive in making this a health risk, but Weber responded that he was not an expert on health risks, and “rather than guessing, we should re-meet in 24 hours.”
Manugian replied, “If that is what the Board of Health needs. We have to support the Board of Health, so “we sill kick the can down the road today and come back tomorrow.” Weber added, “There is a cost to wait a day and a cost to guess. We will try to be reasonable....” He added that he wanted to talk with someone in the State Health Department.
Following further discussion, the Board of Health members unanimously supported the Town Manager’s decision to restrict building and other inspections to emergencies.
Food Take Out
Chairman Manugian raised the issue of health concerns from take out from restaurants. Colleague Degen said that not all people buying takeout are using credit cards; they handle pens to sign the slips that go back and forth among customers, and the number of people in establishments picking up the take out at the same time.
Colleague Pine said she was okay with this concern, and that the Board of Health could put restrictions on how to pay. “Restaurants would welcome this as a way to stay open. The Board of Health can put in clear guidelines, and give it time to see how it works.”
Board of Health member Fleisher pointed out that first responders and healthcare workers may need access to take out, and at the take out restaurant, there could be curbside pickup like at grocery stores.
Manugian noted that the food in a restaurant passes through several hands, from the cooks, to the people who package the food, to the people who take the money or credit card.
Chairman Weber agreed that this service can’t shut down, as it is important for firefighters, police, emergency responders and healthcare workers. “We need some middle ground, perhaps contactless payment, although there may be some people that are unbanked and can’t pay with credit cards. Smart phones could support payments.”
Haddad said he did not want to see a shut down on take out food. “Some people need this, like those with limited options. I want to protect this.”
Select Board member John Giger said he could not see shutting down, and pointed members to the list of essential businesses in the Governor’s report.
Weber said he wanted to communicate with the town’s restaurants and set expectations. Colleague Fleisher stressed that the Governor already approved takeout and delivery. Weber added he wanted to look at curbside pickup and contactless payment.
The Board of Health will hold an emergency meeting on Tuesday, March 24 to further the discussion.