Vergennes, towns ease worker limits

VERGENNES — Public works employees in Vergennes and surrounding towns are back on the job on a limited basis, while Ferrisburgh has taken the lead in allowing one title search at a time to be conducted in its town offices, according to officials gathered on Wednesday in the region’s weekly regional COVID-19 response group meeting.
Despite the easing of some restrictions, all of the officials gathered agreed they must continue to get a message out to the public: “These modest changes were only possible because of the success of the statewide social-distancing effort to this point — and that effort must be ongoing.”
Rep. Matt Birong, D-Vergennes, urged residents to stay the course.
“The reason we have lower case reporting is that we’re doing what we’re doing and it’s working,” Birong said.
Vergennes City Manager Dan Hofman, who hosted the online meeting attended by 15 civic and nonprofit officials from Panton, Waltham, Ferrisburgh and Vergennes, said his public works employees were working off a memo he wrote based on strict CDC guidelines.
“We’re trying to ease our way back,” Hofman said.
Those guidelines included wearing N95 masks, limiting tasks to two employees at a time, maintaining the recommended six-foot distance, carrying hand sanitizer if not in the shop, not sharing vehicles, and staying home if ill.
“If anything I’ve tried to be more restrictive” than the guidelines, Hofman said.
Panton Selectboard Chairman Howard Hall asked about possible liability, and Hofman said he would share the memo. Hall said suggested towns get “a policy out for employees to sign” to protect the town.
Ferrisburgh Road Foreman John Bull said public works departments are thankfully part of “an industry where you can socially distance your employees.”
“Some of it you have to trust your employees,” he added.
Vergennes Public Works Director Jim Larrow said his employees are “getting used to the new norms” and doing well.
“The guys have been very receptive,” Larrow said. “They’re all doing a great job.”

When Hofman said he was opening up Vergennes City Hall at least for title searches, which are necessary before homes and other real estate can be sold, Ferrisburgh officials said in the past couple of days they had just started doing so, by appointment only and one at a time.
Ferrisburgh Selectboard Chairwoman Jessica James, who works for a legal firm, said she was confident those doing searches would cooperate with social distancing and PPE requirements.
“I don’t think people who are researching want to get sick,” James said.
Ferrisburgh Town Clerk Pam Cousino confirmed that those who performed two searches in Ferrisburgh volunteered in advance to put on masks and gloves. 
She and Vergennes City Clerk Morgan Kittredge have also been providing many of the necessary documents electronically, thus minimizing the time researchers need to spend in vaults and at office copiers and computers. 
Cousino said homeowners who want to refinance as well as sell their properties have not been able to act.
“A lot of people have been waiting,” she said.
The clerks said it would be critical to wipe down surfaces after visitors, but that task is not too much to ask.
“I’ve been doing that like a crazy person, anyway,” Cousino said.
Hall said Panton would “require them to wear masks and gloves to walk in the door,” and Hofman said he would work on a memo on procedures for Vergennes, which as of Wednesday was still closed to the public. 
The group also:
•  Heard a plea from Hall for personal protective equipment (PPE) for town employees. Hofman, whose long-delayed shipment of 2,000 masks arrived late last week, said he would speak to his fire and police chiefs to see if they could help. Other towns reported reasonable stocks of PPE.
•  Heard from Vergennes Mayor and Boys & Girls Club of Greater Vergennes Board Chairman Jeff Fritz that the club had received an $11,250 grant from Panda Express’ charitable foundation to help fund its ongoing meals effort. Fritz said the grant would fund about a month’s worth of meals at the current 280 per day clip.
•  Discussed possible housing sites for local essential workers if necessary. Officials said the Basin Harbor Club had volunteered cabins, and Hofman said FEMA could reimburse the club. Hofman said he would also talk to the Strong House Inn, and Bull suggested local schools might also be an option.
•  Heard from Birong that the Legislature was working on allowing farmers’ markets to re-open as of May 1.
•  Discussed the problem of local violations of a statewide ban on open burns, noting that citizens are currently restricted to campfires or fire pits of 2.5 feet in diameter or less in order to minimize fire department call-outs. 

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