REOPENING RULES DEBATE - Town Manager Bob LeLacheur voices concerns about a draft set of reopening guidelines during a Board of Health meeting in late July. The Board of Health has since agreed the town should follow a model similar to the state's office building reopening standards. (Screen Grab from Zoom meeting)

READING - After attempts to craft Reading specific guidelines backfired, the Board of Health recently agreed municipal managers should adhere to the same generic reopening protocols as private offices.

During a meeting last Thursday night, Board of Health Chair Eleanor Tate Shonkoff argued most town employees work in a setting that could be best described as an office space. As such, she felt Town Hall leaders should be held to the same standards as the private sector, though the chairwoman is more than willing to consider the issuance of waivers and exemptions.

“We can review that [state checklist] and have any conversations that are necessary. I think it’s a systematic process and if we have a complaint, [Health Agent Laura Vlasuk] can go back and say, ‘Oh, they have a waiver for that,’” said Shonkoff. “We’ll get to see all the operating protocols in terms of what people are planning to do.”

Ultimately, the Board of Health wholeheartedly supported the reopening approach and voted unanimously to make the state’s Phase III checklist for office spaces the guiding document for Town Manager Bob LeLacheur and other department heads to reference in reopening plans.

All local officials looking to resume day-to-day operations at Town Hall and other municipal buildings will have to comply with the office protocols. Exceptions apply to Reading’s school system and the public library, which are both subject to a different set off reopening rules.

The recent decision regarding the resumption of Town Hall functions comes after various department heads rebelled against a proposal by Board of Health member Kerry Dunnell to base Reading’s reopening plan off of standards developed by the Town of Needham.

According to Dunnell, who never expected that pushback, she welcomed Shonkoff’s compromise as a way to address those management concerns while still ensuring that standard COVID-19 prevention measures are being practiced by workers.

“I like what you’re saying, because it accomplishes the same thing and eliminates any controversy,” said the Board of Health member.

For the past two weeks now, LeLacheur, Police Chief David Clark, and Assistant Town Manager Jean Delios characterized several aspects of that initial Board of Health template as too rigid.

For example, Clark challenged proposed rules that would require command staff to monitor employee temperatures before each work shift. According to the police chief, his department — which has been fully staffed since the crisis began — has already implemented a policy that requires incoming workers to self-report any COVID-19 symptoms.

However, by requiring his command staff to monitor temperatures, the police department could likely find itself in a situation where work shifts — now vacant because an incoming staffer spiked a temperature — couldn’t be backfilled in a timely manner.

“Just to be clear, we never fully closed to the public,” argued Clark, who suggested essential emergency service departments like his, which are staffed 24-hours a day by front-line workers, should be given special consideration.

“It just seems like this is ultra-restrictive in terms of what we’re trying to do,” the police chief objected during a meeting earlier this month. “For stuff like temperature checks, if someone does [a self-check] and then comes in with a fever, I’ll have to send them home. But now I’ll be short-staffed.”

Clark and LeLacheur also objected to protocols that mandated the twice-daily cleaning of shared work stations and commonly-touched surfaces, rules that would force employees to wear facial coverings any time they couldn’t remain spaced six-feet apart from others, and requirements that barriers and one-way directional signage be erected in areas where social distancing is impossible.

Board of Health officials like Dunnell and Shonkoff, who had expected LeLacheur and others to use the Needham protocols as a template to use in crafting department-specific reopening plans, appeared caught off-guard by the intensity of department head objections.

Somewhat stunned in being asked to defend common sense COVID-19 prevention measures like symptom screenings and mandatory social distancing rules, Board of Health members also contended that department heads should justify why such mandates are unreasonable.

“It seems like there’s concern about wearing masks when within six feet of people and people showing up and having to [undergo] a temperature check. [If you propose not complying with those preventative measures], we would need to come up with a better way to determine whether public health objectives are being met,” Shonkoff insisted during a conversation with town staffers earlier this month. “Things like social distancing and mask wearing, that’s really how we slow the spread.”

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