COVID Concerns Convince Board To Move Chatham Town Meeting Outdoors

By: Tim Wood

Last year's annual town meeting was held at Veterans Field, as was the 2020 meeting. The select board decided last week that it was prudent to continue with outdoor meetings and moved this year's annual session back to the field from the middle school, where it was originally slated to be held. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – With COVID cases rising, the select board was faced with a difficult choice regarding the May 14 annual town meeting: stick with the original plan to hold the session at the Monomoy Regional Middle School gym and alienate residents worried about attending a large indoor gathering, or move the meeting to Veterans Field and risk unpredictable spring weather and losing voters whose mobility issues make getting onto the field difficult or impossible.

“We're going to lose voters either way,” said board chair Peter Cocolis.

The board opted for the latter choice, voting unanimously May 3 to shift the meeting to Veterans Field, where it has been held for the last two years due to the pandemic.

Initially there were plans to set aside a separate mask-required room at the middle school, but the region's rising COVID cases convinced the board that moving outside was best for the health and safety of all voters.

In April, the town registered 58 confirmed cases, according to Director of Health and Nature Resources Robert Duncanson, compared to just eight in March. That follows just a few cases a week in February after a higher number of cases in December and January which Duncanson attributed to the Omicron variant.

For the past two years cases trended downward in the spring, but that's not the case now. “There's a fairly steady uptick in cases” since the beginning of April, Duncanson said, which now averages 15 to 20 per week. And that's the official number reported to the state and doesn't count positive results from home tests that are not reported.

As of May 5, Chatham had the 14-day positive rate on the Cape at 9.55, followed by Orleans at 8.73 percent. The rate for the Cape was 7.03 percent and 5.11 percent for the state.

“So we're more than twice the state rate,” Duncanson said. Other Lower Cape towns are showing similar high rates, he added. “Smaller towns actually seem to be getting hit harder than we were before.”

“The data doesn't give me a lot of comfort,” board member Jeff Dykens commented.

The health board considered requiring that all town meeting attendees wear masks, but ended up agreeing to recommend masks if the meeting was held indoors. Select Board member Dean Nicastro questioned if the health board had the power to compel people to wear masks.

Board members said they'd received calls from people fall on both sides, with many concerned about COVID transmission – especially given the town's demographics, with a high number of elderly and immunocompromised residents. Others were concerned about getting onto the field, which was an issue for some voters during the previous two meetings.

Town Manager Jill Goldsmith said Veterans Field was already reserved for May 14, as well as other dates, as a precaution against just this sort of situation. Weather is now the biggest concern; as of late last week, the long-range forecast predicted a 24 percent chance of rain, with temperatures in the 60s and southwest winds 10 to 20 miles per hour.

“Clouds are fine, winds are fine, we're hardy New Englanders,” said board member Cory Metters, “as long as there's no rain or thunder in the forecast.” But he cautioned that things could change in the days leading up to the meeting. “Remember, this is the Cape.”

Board member Shareen Davis was concerned that voters have the opportunity to see information that, if the meeting were held indoors, would be projected on large screens. Those presentations will be available on the town's website prior to the meeting, said Goldsmith.

If the meeting has to be postponed, the next weekend the field would be available is June 11, although it would be available on weekdays, she said. Steve West, general manager of the Chatham Athletic Association, said the June 11 date would be problematic because the Chatham Angler's season begins the next day.

“The 11th is literally our last practice day before the season starts,” he said.

With a 63-article warrant, the meeting could stretch over two days, although a 25-article consent calendar should cut down on the duration (see separate warrant story). The field is available on Sunday, May 15, Goldsmith said.

“I'm personally hopeful we can get this meeting done in one day if we push it,” said Nicastro.