CHATHAM – For the past several months, anyone who wanted a marriage license had to pass papers to the town clerk through an open window. New committee members have been sworn in on the steps of the town offices. Dropping off or picking up of plans, permits, tax payments and other documents at the annex has been done via a drop box, like spies passing clandestine documents in the night.
That ends this week, when three town office buildings — the main town offices, the annex on George Ryder Road and the public works building on Crowell Road — finally reopen to the public after being closed by the pandemic in March.
Beginning Sept. 15, the buildings are open, by appointment only, on Tuesdays from 1 to 3 p.m. and Thursdays from 9 to 11 a.m. Appointments should be made directly with a staff member; a directory of office email addresses and telephone numbers is available on the town's website.
Town maintenance staff and contractors have made adjustments to public and private spaces in the buildings to accommodate COVID-19 safety protocols. Plexiglas barriers were installed at counters and between desks; some of that was under discussion even before the pandemic, said Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson, and much of it is permanent. Desks were moved to provide greater separation, and some staff were moved into different offices to accomplish the necessary distancing. Hand sanitizing stations were installed and protocols instituted to regularly clean and wipe down areas accessible to the public. HEPA-filtered air cleaners were obtained for smaller offices.
The cost of the work was covered by federal and state COVID-19 emergency funding, said Duncanson.
While staff has been working in the offices on a limited basis, it's taken longer to reopen than other towns due to delays in procuring some materials. Desk separations ordered in June didn't arrive until August, he said. Officials have also learned from other towns' experiences. Strict records will be kept of who comes into the offices, and department heads must approve in-person meetings. If business can be done by mail, phone, email, dropbox or online, that will be the default.
“In-person meeting will be kind of a last resort,” Duncanson said.
Only four members of the public will be allowed in a town building at once; a shared appointment calendar will ensure that there's no overlap. Visitors and staff must both wear masks, sanitize their hands and maintain social distancing. The fire department received a grant to procure personal protective equipment.
“We have a pretty good stockpile now for everyone in town,” said Fire Chief David DePasquale.
Retrofitting the annex was relatively easy; the building has an up-to-date ventilation system and the offices are large enough to accommodate social distancing. The DPW building, which was built in the not too distant past, also has sufficient ventilation and space. The town offices, the main core of which is an 1850-era house, presented more challenges. Most of the offices are small and not as easy to retrofit. Staff was shuffled around to take advantage of available space, Duncanson said, and a dutch door was installed at the assessor's office. In the town clerk's office, printers were moved so staff didn't have to move from one office to another.
Other town buildings, like the senior center and harbormaster office, remain closed to the public and will continue to provide services remotely. There is limited access to the police and fire stations, and the community center remains closed except for the after-school PARK program.
All buildings will be deep cleaned once a week, facilitated by a sanitizing fogger built by the fire department. “It's easy to wipe down a counter, but if you have to disinfect an entire building, this is the way to go,” said Duncanson.
Most town business can be done remotely, Duncanson said. Just recently the community development department went online with a system for building and other permits. Email and drop boxes, despite their covert appearance, have worked well.
“We have not had people clamoring to come in,” he said. If there is more demand than the two-day schedule allows, “we can scale it up.”
Likewise, if there is a resurgence of the virus, the buildings can be closed down again and staff can return to all remote work. “We've had that discussion with employees,” Duncanson said. “If we need to pull back, we can.”