With South County in recent days having one person testing positive for the coronavirus - and the potential for more ahead, the possibility of the virus spreading here has arrived and local government leaders are mobilizing to take action before it gets worse.
Dealing with the potential harm from this dangerous and highly contagious virus, local governments are turning to online services, telephone call centers and mail drop-off boxes for citizens whom officials want to protect from crowds and social contact in municipal offices.
These once busy town halls and offices are now closed to public traffic except for appointments — given only when urgent — and have many empty rooms found on meeting dates for traditional boards and commissions that grind out the work of local government.
Local government is approaching a standstill, but is not quite there yet, local officials said in recent interviews.
“As you know, this is an evolving situation and we are all as prepared as possible at this juncture with active precautions and “What if?” plans,” said James Tierney, Narragansett town manager, echoing the sentiments of town managers in South Kingstown and North Kingstown.
Ralph Mollis, North Kingstown town manager, added, “We realize it’s important for government to be extremely flexible at this point.”
And Robert Zarnetske, town manager in South Kingstown, offered, “We’re trying to make sure we’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got, but we are dealing with a worldwide pandemic that threatens the health and well-being of everyone in this community and everyone in the nation.”
Changes in Operations
Precautions from state and federal officials have been repeated almost hourly for the last week to citizens as information is released about the virus’s potentially lethal effects, especially on aging baby boomers and older people who together compose about 30 percent of the U.S. population.
In addition, those of any age and having compromised by health problems, such as cancer or diseases of the immune system, are also at risk.
Elected and local appointed officials, grasping the growing concern amid warnings from state and federal officials in the last week, have issued declarations of emergency. These include the towns of Narragansett, South Kingstown and North Kingstown.
Emergency orders give local officials broad powers to deal with the results of any potential spread of the disease. It allows them to take action without passing new ordinances, to empower public safety departments to enforce emergency laws and to spend money for interventions without following usual routes for approval.
It also provides opportunity to apply for special state or federal funding to shore up town budgets depleted by unexpected expenses, such as overtime for public safety responders and costs for materials needed to assist town programs or services for citizens.
This emergency is different than the September 11 terrorist attacks, other recent health concerns and financial crises, they said, noting the need for almost-instant swiftness and immediate action distinguishes it from the others, they said.
For instance, the South Kingstown Town Council in an unusual Sunday emergency meeting, agreed to slash restaurants’ capacity crowds to mount a proactive push against the spread of the coronavirus. Soon after Narragansett and North Kingstown adopted similar measures.
With these emergency actions also came changes in the public’s involvement in government operations.
Right now, these three towns as well as others in the state, have closed their senior and community centers, canceled their in-person meetings of boards and commissions, and their public library doors have been shut leaving access only through online portals to data bases of information, ebooks and other online services.
Town hall offices, though still technically open, have made clear public needs to stay away where walk-ins have always been a common sight. In the corridors of local government, the reality of actual self-government comes alive in a democracy, felt and experienced through face-to-face interactions.
Appointments have replaced the casual stopping by in Narragansett, South Kingstown and North Kingstown and they are given only for urgent situations. South Kingstown, as do the other towns, makes that point clear.
“Effective Monday March 16, and until further notice,” the notice reads on the town website, “town hall and all municipal offices that currently remain open to the public are no longer allowing walk ins, and are open by appointment only. Please call (401) 789-9331 to schedule an appointment.”
Town Manager Zarnetske pointed out during a recent interview, “We all have to do this. It’s important that it happen and that we take care of ourselves or we’re going to have a major problem.”
While public access is limited now, public comments are not.
Online technology, town officials said, give those interested in commenting on public issues opportunity to email officials through town websites should they see a posting for an online or other “remote” meeting of a public agency or issue needing to be addressed.
In a change that will assist South County’s town governments, as well as others across the state, Gov. Gina Raimondo Monday issued an executive order that removed the state Open Meetings Act prohibition of government agencies meeting remotely.
Agencies that do meet online or by telephone must give public notice and access to the meeting as it happens.
The New Normal
As more barriers go up separating in-person contact with local government, officials and citizens are grappling with a “new normal” that has no definitive end in sight.
Tierney, the Narragansett town manager, said the unfolding process of handling this unique situation with the coronavirus is early and further changes could be required.
Mollis in North Kingstown pointed out that town managers and other officials are collaborating more by phone in recent days to understand actions each other are taking and to put up ideas for discussion before turning them into policy or some other decision.
“We’ve really got to know each other better and talk about the things that are important to our communities as we all share having the same roles in our communities,” he said.
In addition to challenges come the changes that adapting to a different way – if only temporary – might bring to local government quicker now that they need them.
One official said, “We will come through this and we will be stronger in important ways. They say necessity is the mother of invention and it sure feels that way right now. We are being forced to reinvent on a daily basis.”
It means, said this official and others, they need to make operations work better, cheaper and faster. They will have developed effective ways to conduct online meetings and transactions with the public as well as created more robust work programs for municipal employees who also will be using better technology and better productivity strategies, they said.
It could change permanently how government does business in some ways, they offered.
Another first venture into the “new normal” — and enforcing change whether limits in restaurants or decisions about keeping the public away from municipal offices — can spark criticism as South Kingstown officials saw during their Sunday meeting about limits on people in licensed businesses.
A Columbia Street business owner asked about how fair enforcement would happen when there were no penalties and restaurants had different occupancy ratings, he said.
Zarnetske, the town manager, listened patiently across the room as Case stood at a podium expressing his wariness.
“It is obviously one of the great challenges,” Zarnetske explained, “when you are dealing with emergency ordinances...and make sure you are exercising your police power to protect the public health within the constitutional constraints we all operate under, and must continue to operate under, is a challenge.”
Zarnetske added, “This is a challenge for everyone involved. It is not going to be an easy thing for us to ask our police officers (to do). Everyone involved here is going to be doing things that are out of the ordinary.”
For a complete list of changes and policies put in place to help with limited in-person access to town government, visit narragansettri.gov for Narragansett; southkingstownri.com for South Kingstown and northkingstown.org for North Kingstown.