NOT JUST ANOTHER TWIRL AROUND TOWN – Janna Gage, left, walked the Channel boardwalk Sunday with her friend Lyle Turner, probably making the circuit back to Gage’s Seaport Books. The two were caught in the act of successfully social distancing. They are role models for all of us. The signs placed at the boardwalk entryways are a reminder of the times. – Photo by Ken Stern
Town Council dials in on COVID-19 with telephonic meeting
By Bill Reynolds
Town officials were forced to meet remotely last week but were still able to tend to matters at hand.
Fittingly, most of those issues were linked to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, which made necessary the Town Council’s decision to conduct its March 24 session by teleconference.
Among actions taken by Council members under the new meeting format was unanimous approval of ordinance and policy amendments related to the impact of COVID-19.
Acting on a recommendation from Town Administrator Scott Thomas, the Council added to the Town’s ordinance on use of public facilities a waiver of penalties for event cancellations due to natural disasters such as COVID-19.
Thomas first suggested the ordinance amendment at the Council’s March 10 meeting.
“The current codes don’t allow refunds for cancellations,” Thomas explained prior to the Council’s telephonic vote. “So we have to tweak or modify the original ordinance for Town facilities.” The amendment also includes a section allowing the mayor to establish further Town facilities guidelines such as insurance requirements.
The Council, also at the behest of Thomas, voted to amend a Town policy addressing use of sick leave by employees placed on quarantine and/or altered work schedules due to situations like COVID-19.
“We’re attempting to respond to the COVID-19 virus,” Thomas said. “This allows employees to use accrued sick leave when placed on quarantine.”
Councilmember Bill Stokes said the Town should consider expanding the policy further.
“Is there a way we can help supplement this?” Stokes asked. “They (the employees) would draw such leave anyway.”
“At some point in time,” he said, “I’m assuming we’ll have to do that. But we have a little more time before we have to do that.”
Thomas added that Town Hall staff has begun working on a rotating schedule to adhere to social distancing measures put in place to curb the spread of COVID-19. “This allows us to keep using their services,” he said.
Thomas said constant changes due to COVID-19 has created challenges for Town staff.
“But,” he said, “we’re working it out.”
The Council also moved to approve and ratify the Declaration of Public Health Emergency that Mayor Ramon Hayes had issued in response to the coronavirus threat.
The meeting wasn’t all about COVID-19. It began with a brief update on the Town’s potential purchase of Hedlin’s Ballfield. Hayes said the Town Parks Commission has been brought into the loop as 25 per cent of the nearly two acres off Maple Avenue would be designated as a public park.
“There’s been a lot of discussion in regard to the Hedlin property,” said Hayes, who added he is looking into information regarding an appraisal of the site.
The teleconferenced Council meeting met social distancing standards and kept the Town on the right side of a state ban on large gatherings. But there were a few hiccups.
The audio cut out occasionally and at the outset there were issues connecting with Councilmember Mary Wohleb.
Fortunately, Hayes was able to field another call while those problems were being sorted out.
“My mother,” he explained. “is calling me on the other line.”
Hayes suggested the Council consider using Zoom videoconferencing for its next remote meeting. His daughter, Victoria, a La Conner High student, has used Zoom for lessons, he said. Hayes and the Council are also exploring ways of connecting with townspeople while the state’s “stay home, stay healthy” order is in effect.
“How are we tapping into the community’s concerns?” Wohleb asked. “We’re not seeing anybody anymore.”
Hayes said a statement should be crafted, perhaps to be sent with the monthly water billing, assuring people the Town is functioning well.
Brunisholz put that sentiment in still more personal terms.
“Everybody should know,” he said, “that we are thinking about them and that we care.”
La Conner isn’t playing around when it comes to curbing the spread of COVID-19.
The Town Council moved to temporarily close the John Hammer Memorial Playground below Town Hall and the Salmon Slide at Conner Waterfront Park following its lengthy discussion via a teleconference meeting March 24.
In so doing, Town officials followed the lead of other Puget Sound communities employing multiple measures to limit exposure to the novel coronavirus.
Councilmembers considered but did not close the popular La Conner waterfront boardwalk, choosing to place signage there stressing the need for people to observe social distancing.
The children’s play areas pose different challenges, however.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has said it might be possible COVID-19 can be transmitted by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it. That didn’t escape the Council’s notice.
“It’s not just how close kids are to each other on a playground,” Councilmember Jacques Brunisholz, a retired teacher, said, later adding that “kids don’t social distance.” “It (the virus) is also on the surface (of playground equipment),” he said.
Councilmember Mary Wohleb noted that a friend had sent her a photograph of a playground in Anacortes being hosed off for COVID-19.
“I think it’s important to be careful,” she said.
The skateboard park on North Sixth Street also escaped closure.
Brunisholz said the skateboard park differs from playgrounds because its users don’t grasp equipment.
He suggested the boardwalk either be closed or limited to one-way usage.
“People will come to the valley for the Tulip Festival even with everything shut down to get out of the city,” Brunisholz said, “and they’ll go to the boardwalk because it’s a great place.”
Councilmember John Leaver, an avid cyclist, said he hasn’t seen large enough crowds downtown to warrant limiting access to the boardwalk.
“I ride my bike around town a lot,” Leaver said. “Last weekend there were maybe 20 people from one end of town to the other. To me, closing off the boardwalk would be too draconian.”
Mayor Ramon Hayes said new signage at the boardwalk could be the answer – at least for now.
“We can continue to monitor the daily activity there and if it becomes an issue – I don’t think it will – we could perhaps post signs reminding (the public) what social distancing is,” said Hayes. Those signs went up last week.
In other Council developments: • Leaver suggested the Town consider a one-month waiver of sewer and water charges, especially for commercial users, given economic hardships resulting from the virus crisis. “Businesses are hurting and families in town are hurting,” he said. “I would hate to see when this crisis passes that we have a bunch of boarded-up businesses.” Councilmember Bill Stokes offered a cautionary response. “Our utilities aren’t profit-making,” he said. “They (have to) pay for themselves.” Stokes said the Town will likely “take a huge hit” financially because of COVID-19. “We can’t start giving away things we can’t afford,” he said. Leaver’s proposal was not pursued, but Town staff will compile comprehensive water and sewer use data for further discussion. • Hayes, himself a local business owner, said he supports state restrictions in place to combat the coronavirus. “In my opinion, the governor is doing exactly the right thing,” Hayes said. “If you have a cancer, you have to cut it out. The only question is how long this shutdown will last.” • Conducting the Council meeting by teleconference wasn’t without glitches. The audio was unclear at times. Stokes termed the format as “horrible.” With tongue planted only slightly in cheek, he offered a few alternatives while social distancing is mandated. “Can we have the meetings outdoors or in Maple Hall with everybody 20 feet apart?” Stokes asked. “Or maybe we can park in our cars and yell out the window.” Town Administrator Scott Thomas agreed. “I don’t know what the answer is,” Thomas said, “but this isn’t it.” • Leaver offered a rare positive spin on stay-at-home and social distancing directives that have turned La Conner into a virtual ghost town at times. “One bright spot,” Leaver said, “is the toilet paper (in the Town’s public restrooms) has increased. We don’t have to worry about people stealing it as much.”