Dracut selectmen declare state of emergency, vote to postpone elections

Dracut Town Hall
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DRACUT — The Board of Selectmen voted unanimously Thursday to declare a local state of emergency, authorizing interim Town Manager Ann Vandal to act on behalf of the town amid the global pandemic of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19.

The board also voted to postpone the upcoming May 4 election to June 29, with the vote contingent upon pending state legislation that was proposed Thursday, according to Town Clerk Kathleen Graham.

Selectmen Chairman Jesse Forcier announced during the meeting that interviews with finalists for the town manager’s position that had been scheduled for Saturday are also postponed until further notice.

Thursday’s meeting was held at Town Hall but was closed to the public and broadcast on Dracut Access Television, as all town buildings have been closed to the public since March 13, when the town announced that public meetings and extracurricular activities are canceled until further notice.

Vandal emphasized that there are no confirmed cases of the illness in Dracut at this point, despite the flurry of Facebook activity that occurred Thursday after a local tavern posted that one of its employees had tested positive for the virus. The post was quickly deleted and replaced Thursday afternoon with another stating that the original post was incorrect.

The updated post reads: “Based on the information I have and conversations with Dracut and Lowell Board of Health there have been 2 confirmed cases as of March 16 Monday in Lowell. They do not involve (our establishment) or our staff or Dracut. My earlier post was incorrect based on the information told to me. I am Happy about this and apologize for the hysteria this has created.”

Town Counsel James Hall, who called in to the selectmen’s meeting, told the board that declaring a local state of emergency allows the town to address local concerns stemming from the outbreak, such as the need to close local playgrounds or shut down Town Hall completely to prevent the spread of the disease.

“So this really just deals with emergencies,” Hall said. “It doesn’t deal with the ordinary, everyday matters. But when emergencies come up and action must be taken quickly, then this vote will recognize the need for Ann to represent the town and tying the local and state and national agencies and all of our forces in town to solve these emergencies and manage them properly.”

Graham, the town clerk, advocated for pushing back the town election to protect poll workers, who are often older and may be more vulnerable to the illness, as well as local voters. Additionally, several of the town’s polling locations are in schools, which could become a concern if students are allowed to return to classes by the originally scheduled date, she said.

“I’m concerned for both the safety and the well-being of both my election workers and all the people that are voting in public,” she said. “It is readily apparent that it’s not safe for large numbers of people to congregate in public spaces during this current time.”

Graham said the ballot will not change, as the last day to return nomination papers was Monday. Those in elected positions whose terms are set to end in May will be expected to remain in their roles until the election, she said.

The board also briefly discussed Town Meeting, which is scheduled for June 1, though postponing the meeting is at the sole discretion of the town moderator, according to officials. No decision has been made at this time, but it’s likely the meeting will be pushed to a later date, they said.

For future essential board and committee meetings, Vandal said the town is exploring using the video-conferencing service Zoom to host meetings virtually. There will likely be a hiring freeze for the time being, as the town’s finances will be strained by the emergency situation, and the town is working on waiving fees for online payments so that residents are not charged extra for submitting payments safely.

Officials are working to continue offering as many services as possible with minimal human contact, and are weighing allowing employees who are able to work from home to do so, she said.

“We recognize that there’s going to be needs and there’s going to be things that have to be done, and that’s what we’re here for, and that’s why they call us the government, right?” Vandal said. “That’s why we’re here.”