READING - Community leaders late yesterday afternoon ordered Town Hall and other municipal offices closed to the public in the latest emergency measure aimed at curbing the potential spread of COVID-19.
In separate statements on Monday afternoon, the Reading Board of Health and Town Manager Robert LeLacheur announced the newest restrictions will become effective immediately in order to create a firewall between the general public and the town's municipal workforce.
Town Hall workers will still be coming to work each day, but will not be interacting face-to-face with customers. The emergency order will last at least until March 27.
Though the decision was reached during a collaborative meeting between key Town Hall and public safety managers, the order itself is being implemented under the Board of Health's powers. In the coming days, LeLacheur plans to update the public on how they may gain alternative access Town Hall services.
"We are all facing a challenge that none of us has seen before," said the town manager in a prepared statement on Monday afternoon. "Everyone will need to make significant adjustments to their daily lives — and the role each of you plays in following the guidelines and keeping well informed with the facts is the single-most important response we need from our community."
"With your help, we got this," LeLacheur later assured.
Reading's newest emergency directive comes after Schools' Superintendent John Doherty last Friday ordered all public educational facilities closed until April 7.
Also on Sunday, Mass. Governor Charles Baker ordered some of the toughest COVID-19 restrictions in the country by forbidding public gatherings of more than 25 people and ordering all restaurants and bars to halt in-house food and beverage services.
As the Board of Health noted yesterday, those new restaurant rules become effective today, meaning food establishments in the community must either pivot exclusively to take-out and delivery business models or close their doors. To ensure compliance with the directive, Health Agent Laura Vlasuk is requiring restaurant owners to either remove all seating from dining rooms or rope-off all areas with tables and chairs.
"Restaurants that remain open for take-out/delivery operations are advised to notify the Health Agent, Laura Vlasuk, if and when they close. They are advised to remove all chairs or tape-off tales too prevent in-person gathering," the Board of Health announced on Monday.
Though other service industry establishments and non-profits may technically remain open, individuals overseeing those operations must make sure no more than 25 people are gathered in one place. In order to protect workers, the Board of Health is suggesting that customers refrain from using cash for payments.
"Businesses are encouraged to use financial transactions that minimize circulating cash/change through multiple persons," the Board of Health said. "Organizations such as childcare facilities, gyms, and churches are strongly urged to suspend operations."
As of yesterday, Reading has not yet recorded a positive COVID-19 case within its borders. However, the size of a statewide outbreak has grown to at least 197 cases, with approximately 83 of those positive test results coming from Middlesex Country.
With public health authorities now acknowledging the contagion is likely to become more widespread across Massachusetts, the state's COVID-19 response is shifting from a containment to mitigation model, where the focus shifts from outbreak prevention measures like quarantine orders to policies aimed at limiting the scale and severity of the infectious disease's spread.
In recent days, officials from the Mass. Department of Public Health (DPH) and federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have insisted the public has a huge role to play by engaging in social distancing measures like avoiding large crowds, isolating at home when sick, and maintaining at least six-feet of separation between other people.
"We ask residents residents to continue their efforts to minimize the spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus) in our local community by practicing social distancing. While we expect the majority of cases to be mild, residents can help protect those at greater risk by slowing transmission as much as possible," the Board of Health urged yesterday afternoon. "This helps to ensure that, if and when cases occur, healthcare facilities have capacity to treat individuals. "
Other key points offered by the Board of Health in yesterday’s public announcement include the following:
• To access Town Hall services, please visit ReadingMA.gov or call (781) 942-9001. The Fire and Police departments remain operational;
• The Reading Food Pantry delivered individual bags to clients before temporarily closing from March 17 to March 31;
• Walk-in service to the Police department for compost stickers has been suspended until further notice;
• Burn permit requests should be placed by calling the Fire Department at (781)942-3132. Walk-in service will be suspended until further notice;
• and organizations such as childcare facilities, gyms, and churches are strongly urged to suspend operations. Guidance can be found on the MA Department of Public Health (DPH) and mitigation plans published by the Centers for Disease Control (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/downloads/community-mitigation-strategy.pdf). If childcare facilities plan to close, they are required to contact the Health Department. Please include the business address with that notification.